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The Four Tops

April 07, 2008
April 07, 2008

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April 7, 2008

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The Four Tops

A quartet of powerhouse teams, each with a uniquely skilled star, is set for a showdown in San Antonio in the strongest Final Four ever

FOUR SECONDS.That's all it took. Four seconds for UCLA freshman forward Kevin Love to buryXavier for good after the Musketeers had mounted a comeback with an 11--2 runin the second half of last Saturday's West Regional final. Four seconds forLove to snatch the ball out of the net, take one step out-of-bounds—his rightfoot planted, his left foot inches above the floor—and snap an immaculate,70-foot chest pass to teammate Russell Westbrook for a layup and a 14-pointlead. Four seconds to crush Xavier with basketball's answer to a 60-yardtouchdown throw. For one glorious, fleeting moment the old-school chest passwas as sexy as a Dwight Howard slam dunk. "I love hearing the oohs and aahsyou get from the crowd," Love says, "because you rarely ever hear themfor a pass. You usually just hear them for a dunk."

This is an article from the April 7, 2008 issue

It was aremarkable pass by a special player in an unprecedented NCAA tournament, thefirst in which all four No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Final Four. But Love'sonce-in-a-generation outlets won't be the only singular skill on display thisweek in San Antonio, where the Bruins will join Kansas, Memphis and NorthCarolina in "as high quality a Final Four as there's ever been," saysJayhawks coach Bill Self. In a bracket with chalk deposits the size of thecliffs at Dover, each team features a star with an unconventional signaturemove that could unhinge an opponent this week, especially an unfamiliar one.(None of the Big Four faced each other this season.) In the end, each weaponcould be decisive in close games between teams with remarkably similar (andrarefied) talent levels.

No Final Four inrecent memory has showcased a more diverse bag of tricks. North Carolina juniorforward Tyler Hansbrough has made a mockery of low-post fundamentals with hisgo-to move, an unorthodox (but highly effective) hybrid of a jump hook and aturnaround jumper that Tar Heels coach Roy Williams calls "the shotput." Kansas junior guard Mario Chalmers specializes in reading anopponent's eyes and springing into passing lanes for steals, an art he learnedfrom his mother, Almarie, his YMCA coach during grade school in Anchorage. AndMemphis junior swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts perfected his signature move, aherky-jerky midrange floater, on the asphalt courts of his native Detroit.

"Old-mantricks," Tigers point guard Derrick Rose calls the various ball handlingmaneuvers that Douglas-Roberts uses to penetrate the lane in Memphis'sdribble-drive motion offense. "Earl the Pearl [Monroe] is my guy," saysCDR, whose repertoire includes a freaky inside-outside dribble, a moretraditional crossover and a series of unpredictable, hunched-over feints thatMichigan State's Travis Walton, who tried in vain to guard him last week,called a "snake move."

"I just havean unorthodox kind of game, like everybody from Detroit has," saysDouglas-Roberts, a first-team All-America whose 25 points helped Memphis torchTexas 85--67 in Sunday's South Regional final. "We like to create our ownshot and take a lot of scoop shots and in-between shots." But once the6'7" Douglas-Roberts approaches the basket, his favorite move is clearlythe running teardrop ("My floater is always in my back pocket," hesays), which he can loft above the outstretched arms of taller defenders witheither hand from the baseline, the middle of the lane and any other nook orcranny the defense provides. "He'll shoot it from 12 to 14 feet to whereit's not a true teardrop floater, it's more of a push floater," says Tigersassistant coach John Robic. "But he's so confident in it, that's what hewants to shoot."

He'll need thatchutzpah in Saturday's national semifinal against UCLA, especially if theBruins decide to use the same quirky one-man zone (with a stationary big manclogging the lane) that worked to perfection the last time these two teamsplayed, a 50--45 UCLA win in the 2006 West Regional final. Then again, neitherthe 37--1 Tigers nor Douglas-Roberts is the same as two years ago. One bigdifference: CDR's three-point shooting has risen from 31.0% two seasons ago to41.6% this year. "Chris has a consistent [outside] shot now," saysteammate Doneal Mack. "So if he sees you back off, he's hittingit."

By contrast, ifUCLA's Love spies too many Tigers attacking the rim, he'll make them pay withhis court-length passes, aesthetic wonders so simple and clean that they seemto come straight out of a glossy European design magazine. With apologies toDavidson's jump-shooting Stephen Curry and Western Kentucky's buzzer-beating TyRogers, the most awe-inspiring highlight of the 2008 NCAA tournament didn'teven take place during a game. In a sequence caught by CBS cameras that's fastbecoming a YouTube classic, Love stood behind the baseline practicing chestpasses at the Honda Center in Anaheim the day before the Bruins' first-roundgame against Mississippi Valley State. Normally this would be about as excitingas listening to coach Ben Howland ruminate on the finer points of the defensivestance. But as Love released the ball with a flick of his wrists, it flew overthe free throw line, over the half-court line, over the other free throw line,over the rim and down through the net.

Swish. TheBruins, who'd seen Love's 94-foot parlor trick before, turned away andchuckled. But first-time observers whooped in disbelief. It was no fluke, butrather the result of years of training. Growing up, Love did fingertip push-upsto strengthen his wrists, and by his sophomore year at Lake Oswego (Ore.) Highhe could fire chest passes from one basket to the other. "I'll tell you theplay that got me," says Kerry Keating, who recruited Love to UCLA and isnow the coach at Santa Clara. "During a high school game he took a madebasket, got out-of-bounds and with his momentum going away from the courtflicked a chest pass 75 feet. I looked at people in the gym and asked, 'Do youknow how hard that is?'"

As soon as Bruinsspeedsters Josh Shipp and Westbrook see that Love has gathered a rebound, theybolt to the other end of the floor like wide receivers taking off on flypatterns. "All we have to do is run," says Shipp. "We know the ballis coming right on the money." If they're covered, Love can also fire ashorter pass to point guard Darren Collison for a more traditional fast break.And though UCLA scores only about two baskets per game off Love's boomingoutlets, the constant threat of one causes foes to change their strategy. Ifthey send fewer players to the offensive glass in hopes of preventing Bruinsrun-outs, then they won't grab as many rebounds.

Truth be told,Love's outlets seem better suited for Carolina's go-go attack than for theslower tempo of UCLA's defense-first schemes, but after visiting both schoolsLove opted for Westwood. ("It was amazing playing pickup with him,"recalls Tar Heels guard Bobby Frasor. "He was throwing [outlet passes], andyou're just catching them in stride.") A Tar Heels front line of Love andHansbrough might not have been fair, however, with the former controlling thedefensive blocks and the latter owning the offensive end with his unique shotput move.

Indeed,Hansbrough looks positively Olympian when he catches the ball down low, turnsto his left and—instead of keeping his left shoulder closed, in the way of mostjump-hook shooters—opens his upper body and left arm toward the basket. Then,instead of releasing quickly from above his head, Hansbrough waits a beatbefore shooting from a lower point just behind his right ear. He might as wellput chalk on his neck. "When I first saw it our freshman year," saysteammate Danny Green, "I was like, 'What the hell is that?'"

The result mayappear almost as unnatural as Hansbrough's on-court dance after he hit thegame-winner against Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament, but there's a methodto his quirky delivery. Psycho-T is so strong that he can ward off defenderswith his left arm, sometimes bamboozling them by initiating contact, and he'sbig enough that he can avoid most blocked-shot attempts despite opening up tothe basket. And the low release point? "That comes from him wanting to getfouled," says Tar Heels assistant coach Joe Holladay. "He can hold theball longer, and he'll wait until he gets hit. He gets three points more oftenthan most three-point shooters."

Hansbrough admitsthat he'll have to change his form once he moves to the NBA, the better tocombat taller, more athletic defenders, and he has a tendency to force shotsthrough double- and triple-teams because "he's so competitive, he wants toscore over three guys," says Holladay. But at the college level, asWilliams says, "he makes it so many times and it's so hard for people toget to it that we haven't done anything to change it." Despite the shot putconnotation, it's still a soft shot with plenty of backspin, and Hansbroughrelied on it to hit a game-winner at Virginia in February and two key basketsover Louisville's 6'11" David Padgett in the Heels' 83--73 EastRegional--final win last Saturday.

Besides,Hansbrough never has been much for style points, anyway. "If it's working,I'll stay with it regardless of how it looks," he says. "If I'm goingto make a free throw by shooting it from between my legs each time, then I'd dothat."

IF SATURDAY'Sshowdown between North Carolina and Kansas had a name, it would probably be theRoy Williams Existential Angst Invitational. Ol' Roy says he still hasemotional scars from his famously tortured decision in 2003 to leave Kansas,the school he took to four Final Fours, for his alma mater, which he guided tohis first NCAA title, in '05. But if everyone gets too wrapped up in a reverieover Williams's first game against Kansas since the Decision, the Jayhawks'Chalmers can snap them out of it in a flash with his uncanny knack for steppinginto passing lanes for steals.

Chalmers led theBig 12 in swipes this season, averaging 2.43 per game, a year after setting theKansas single-season record with 97. "Mario's off-the-ball instincts are asgood as anybody's I've ever been around," says Self, who notes that the6'1" Chalmers is aided by large hands and an unusually long wingspan. Butto hear Super Mario himself describe it, his signature skill is almostsupernatural. "I try to read people's eyes," he says, "to see whatthey're looking at and read their minds." Then he springs into action,darting between a passer and his intended recipient, most often after slippingthrough a screen and anticipating a slow bounce pass or crosscourt pass.

Chalmers'sfather, Ronnie, is the Jayhawks' director of basketball operations, but both heand his son credit Mario's mother for his ball hawking binges. She knows thegame, having played at Winston-Salem (N.C.) State and Methodist College inFayetteville, N.C. "When I played in high school and in the Air Force, Iwas always a scorer, but [Almarie] was more of a defensive stopper," saysRonnie. "I say to my wife, 'You take credit for the defense, I'll takecredit for the offense.' You always trust a woman's intuition. A lot of timesmy wife is thinking much further ahead."

But Chalmers'sskill carries plenty of risks. The opposing point guards he'll face thisweek—Carolina's Ty Lawson, and either UCLA's Darren Collison or Memphis's Roseif Kansas advances—can punish him in the blink of an eye if he overreaches."A lot of times if you make the steal, [it's a] momentum-changingplay," says Self. "But it can get your big guys a foul, because a guardwill gamble and miss, and then the other player drives the ball and the bigguys have to come over and help." Not to worry, says Chalmers: He andfellow guard Russell Robinson "have a connection," so that one knowswhen to cover for the other if he oversteps his area of responsibility.

Yet for all theunique styles that will be on parade at this year's Final Four, it may help torecall that the heroes of NCAA tournaments past have often been called on toreveal new and unexpected talents in the crucible of the sport's biggest stage.In the tournament's first two weeks we have already seen potential for suchenhancements. Hardly a skywalker, Love turned into a shot-blocking monsterduring UCLA's closest call, a second-round squeaker over Texas A&M,swatting seven in the second half. When Kansas was struggling to score againstDavidson in Sunday's Midwest Regional final, Chalmers hit three first-halfthree-pointers. Likewise, Douglas-Roberts thumbed his nose at skeptics ofMemphis's abysmal 60.7% free throw shooting by nailing 14 of 17 from the lineon Sunday, part of a 30-for-36 team effort.

And Hansbrough?All he did was step out to drain four shots from between 16 and 18 feet againstLouisville, a doomsday scenario for any Carolina foe. It was enough to make youwonder: Why does Psycho-T so rarely shoot a Psycho Three? "I don't know,man," says Hansbrough, who's 0 for 6 from long distance this season aftergoing 3 for 8 during his first two years. "Threes just haven't fallen forme this year. Hopefully I'll knock one in sometime."

Who knows? Itmight just be on Monday night at the end of a Final Four for the ages.

Scouts' Takes

SI asked assistant coaches who had prepared a gameplan against one of this year's Final Four teams to share their insights andobservations about its offense and defense. They were all guaranteed anonymityin exchange for their candor.

HOW TO BEAT UCLA

VS.

HOW TO BEAT MEMPHIS

WHEN UCLA HAS THE BALL "You must keep DarrenCollison (below) and Russell Westbrook from penetrating. They want to run, but[coach] Ben Howland wants [them] to get across half-court and set up. If youhave length, depth and speed, you can get to them—but you have to have allthree."

ATTACKING THE BRUINS "Be physical on screens orthey will run through you. They push screeners out so high that your first passis not a scoring pass, and that gives Kevin Love time to get back [and help].One thing they don't have is depth. If you can run a lot of athletes at them,you can beat them, the way Texas did [on Dec. 2]. Their guards like to reach,and Love will help on D, so you can get them in foul trouble."

X FACTOR "Josh Shipp. He'll get open looks asteams try to stop Collison and Westbrook from driving. But can he hitthem?"

WHEN MEMPHIS HAS THE BALL "They'll shoot thethree, but they prefer twos. They want to attack and get to the basket. Andthey spread you out so much, it's very hard if you're not a good help-sidedefensive team. Derrick Rose prefers to go to his right, and you can't let himinside for a midrange shot without contesting it. You have to keep him in frontof you."

ATTACKING THE TIGERS "You have to be able towithstand their initial pressure. Their perimeter guys are going to get afteryou, take some gambles, because they depend on their bigs to block shots and bea safety net. Go at Chris Douglas-Roberts. He struggles to stay in front of theball."

X FACTOR "Joey Dorsey. He's their best offensiverebounder, but you can beat him up the floor the other way. And he's foulprone."

HOW TO BEAT UNC

VS.

HOW TO BEAT KANSAS

WHEN CAROLINA HAS THE BALL "They get easyopportunities because Ty Lawson (below) is so fast and their wings run so well.So you have to slow them down in transition, then get back and make them playhalf-court offense. You have to push Tyler Hansbrough off the blocks, but if hegets it low, you have to double-team him [and recover against] their shooterson the perimeter."

ATTACKING THE TAR HEELS "They disrupt your offenseby denying passes and making steals [8.2 a game]. You have to go backdoor andcreate movement. If you stand against them or try to dribble, they're good atslapping down and disrupting you."

X FACTOR "Danny Green. He comes off the bench andhe's facing tired guys, shooting a high percentage, getting steals [1.2 a game]and pushing the ball in transition."

WHEN KANSAS HAS THE BALL "They set a ton ofscreens, so you have to keep them off balance. You can't show the same thing onevery possession because they'll get in a rhythm and capitalize on it. And youhave to take charges. If they put their heads down and drive, and you're notalert and down too, they'll get to the rim."

ATTACKING THE JAYHAWKS "They're very athletic,they blow up screens well, and they force you out of your offense. You have toset strong screens to get open shots. But they don't box out consistently, soyou can get offensive rebounds if your bigs screen and then crash theglass."

X FACTOR "Sasha Kaun. It's not that he makes playsevery possession, but against [Davidson] he had huge offensive rebounds andpost-up scores."

PICK: UCLA

WINNER: UCLA

PICK: KANSAS

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FINAL FRONTIER
Complete Final Four coverage, including positional breakdowns and on-siteanalysis from Luke Winn and Stewart Mandel.

SI.COM/NCAA

PHOTOPhotograph by John BieverROCK, CHALK At Detroit's Ford Field, Sasha Kaun (24) and Kansas denied tournament darling Davidson in the Midwest region final and became the last of the top seeds to advance.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (LOVE)HIGH AND LOW Douglas-Roberts (14) stung Texas with his floater, while Love (42) often had to contend with three Musketeers.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (DOUGLAS-ROBERTS)PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (ROSE)PASSING FANCY Rose (23) had 21 points and nine assists against Texas, lifting Memphis to its first Final Four since 1985.PHOTOSTEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES (COLLISON)PHOTOBOB ROSATO (LAWSON)PHOTOBOB ROSATOHOOKED UP Hansbrough's unorthodox "shot put" delivery isn't pretty, but it helps him pick up fouls and get to the line.PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (CHALMERS)PICK POCKET Chalmers (15) is a master of the takeaway, victimizing guards like Curry.