This year’s Final Four: tough picks

Just like last season, any team in this year’s Final Four could emerge as the National Champion. It doesn’t work out that way very often. Usually, there always seems to be a team that you can’t picture winning the title. Georgia Tech almost fits that mold, but you have to respect a team that advanced to the Final Four without its best player, as well as wins over both Connecticut and Duke.

Saturday night’s games should be phenomenal. The Oklahoma State-Georgia Tech match-up will be decided by a duel between two sensational backcourts, Tony Allen and John Lucas against B.J. Elder and Jarrett Jack. Meanwhile, in the nightcap, the two most talented teams in the country, Duke and Connecticut, will meet in a rematch of the 1999 championship game.

The possibilities for Monday are just as intriguing. If Oklahoma State advances, the buzz will center on 68-year-old Eddie Sutton’s first chance at a title. On the other hand, it could be an all-ACC final with Georgia Tech meeting Duke for the fourth time this season. Or, UConn might get another shot at Georgia Tech, who dominated a Huskies team that had luckily rallied for a comeback win over Yale only a week and a half earlier.

Last week, I survived the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight with a 10-2 record and all my Final Four teams intact. It’s going to be difficult to keep the momentum going. Each of Saturday’s games is a tough call complicated by several critical questions. Most importantly — who’s healthy?

So, on to the picks, medical reports, and other random observations about the NCAA Tournament.



Oklahoma State vs. Georgia Tech: OK St.

John Lucas and Jarrett Jack have probably been the two players who have surprised me the most in the tournament. Lucas was huge in knocking off St. Joe’s in what has been the best game so far. In the final minute, he nailed a pull-up jumper to give the Cowboys the lead, then won the game with a 23-footer. Meanwhile, Jack has picked up the slack after Georgia Tech lost B.J. Elder in the opening minutes of the Nevada game.

Both teams have great backcourts, but a few other factors could decide this game.

1) Health: What is the status of the Yellow Jackets’ leading scorer? It is amazing that Tech beat Nevada and Kansas without B.J. Elder. If Elder can contribute on Saturday, Tech should be in great shape. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State has the decided advantage of being the only healthy team in the Final Four.

2) Luke Schenscher: Georgia Tech’s center can be a huge difference maker. At 7-foot-1-inch he will dwarf the Cowboys’ front line. He was huge when Tech ended Duke’s 41-game winning streak at Cameron Indoor Stadium. What impact can he have?

3) Turnovers: Georgia Tech is incredibly deep and athletic, but they commit almost 16 turnovers a game. If Jarrett Jack can keep Tech under control, they might be able to run Oklahoma State into the ground. If not, John Lucas and Tony Allen can take charge of the game and keep an offense that shoots 51 percent running smoothly.

I want to pick Georgia Tech in an upset, but Lucas and Allen should give Oklahoma State the win.



Duke vs. Connecticut: UConn

When I first filled out my bracket, I had this game deciding the championship. I still feel the same way.

Duke is the only No. 1 seed remaining in the Dance, but UConn has been the clear favorite to win it all for the last couple weeks. In the Phoenix Regional, the Huskies were never challenged.

Everyone seems to be using this game as an argument for reseeding the Final Four. After all, shouldn’t the two best teams play in the final? Oklahoma State was technically a higher No. 2 seed than UConn, but the point is well taken. The best case I can think for reseeding would be the 1996 Final Four. Fourth seeds Mississippi State and Syracuse met before a nightcap of top seeds Kentucky and Massachusetts that everyone considered to be the real championship game. Why will reseeding never happen? It would ruin bracket pools like BYU on a Sunday.

All right, what about this game? Three keys:

1) Fouls: Duke is deep in the backcourt and shallow in the frontcourt, the exact opposite of UConn. The key to this game will be fouls. Duke struggled down the stretch when Shelden Williams starting spending too much time on the bench. It’s not hard to imagine Emeka Okafor, Charlie Villanueva, and Josh Boone racking up fouls on Williams and his backup, Shavlik Randolph. Duke will need a center other than Nick Horvath to alter shots and give open looks to the shooters.

2) Health: The MRI on Okafor’s shoulder was negative, and he was cleared to practice this week. Still, Okafor’s back is clearly causing problems. If he is ineffective, the story in the post could be dramatically different. Williams has better offensive skills than Villanueva and Boone, and Randolph has really improved his ability to finish in the paint. For Duke, Chris Duhon is starting to look more comfortable. His defense and leadership have been great, but Duke might need him to feel well enough to knock down big shots on Saturday.

3) Crunch Time: In a game that could come down to the wire, who will take the big shots? Luol Deng saved Duke’s season against Xavier, but UConn hasn’t been in a close game. Okafor might not be your pick to take big shots because he only shoots 51 percent from the foul line. Ben Gordon probably gets the nod at the end of the game. If free throws decide the game, Duke has the advantage because the Blue Devils shoot 74 percent as compared to the Huskies’ 61.6 percent.

In the end, I think size will decide the issue and Connecticut will win.

I have to stop writing now before I change my mind again on both of these games. I’ll be back on Monday for a preview of the Duke-Georgia Tech final.

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