If the last few years are any indication, the smart money will be on Kansas in Monday’s NCAA Tournament championship game.
In each of the last three years, as college basketball has faced an exodus of underclass and high school talent to the NBA, a determined, talented senior has led his team to the title. Kansas, which pole-axed Marquette 94-61 in a semifinal game Saturday, has two such seniors, forward Nick Collison and guard Kirk Hinrich. The Jayhawks, who lost in the semifinals to Maryland last year, start three sophomores, but have no freshman who plays as much as seven minutes a game.
Syracuse, which upset Texas 95-84 in the other semi, is led by a pair of freshmen. Forward Carmelo Anthony is expected to be a pro next year but he has such a baby face he probably gets carded at R-rated movies. Yet he was dominant against Texas, unstoppable, a man playing against boys.. Point guard Gerry McNamara is a defensive pest, a hustling leader and a streaky three-point shooter. Syracuse gets significant minutes from only two seniors, guard Kueth Duany, only the Orange’s fourth leading scorer, and role-playing forward Jeremy McNeil, who plays about 19 minutes off the bench and accounts for three points and four rebounds a game.
Mateen Cleaves of Michigan State, Shane Battier of Duke and Juan Dixon of Maryland have taught us over the last three years that senior leadership is where it’s at come Tournament time. And one could even argue, though not altogether persuasively, that senior Ricky Moore, not junior Richard Hamilton, led Connecticut to the title four years ago. Younger teams seem to come apart under the big top, the way Marquette did Saturday, when the Golden Eagles, who are led by junior Dwyane Wade and sophomore Travis Diener, came completely unhinged against Kansas.
But if that were going to happen to Syracuse, wouldn’t it have happened by now? The Orange looked poised and polished in front of 54,432 fans against Texas, taking an early lead and holding off every charge by the Longhorns, the only surviving top seed in the Final Four. Anthony may look like the president of the ninth grade, but he plays like a senior already. He can score from outside, drive to the basket or feed his teammates, and his decision about which to do always seems to be the right one. He can bang inside and rebound, and he doesn’t commit silly, lazy fouls.
I’m suspicious of the reputations of college basketball phenoms in direct proportion to their school’s proximity to New York City — the same player will have a vastly different media profile playing at Georgetown or UConn than he will at Washington State or Colorado — but Anthony’s the real thing.
So let’s put aside the seniors vs. freshmen thing. Can Syracuse beat Kansas and derail what looks like the scripted story of this Tournament, the Jayhawks finally getting coach Roy Williams his first title just before he takes the job at his alma mater, North Carolina?
Of course it can, and it just might. For all the talk about Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense, the key to this team is its offense. Texas never really solved the Orange zone but still managed to put 84 points on the board Saturday. With Collison and Jeff Graves inside and Hinrich shooting threes and slashing, Kansas, the fourth highest scoring team in the nation, seems perfectly designed to do even better. But the Longhorns, the seventh team to break 80 against Syracuse this year, were the sixth to lose while doing so. Meanwhile the five teams that have beaten the Orange averaged only 73 points a game in those wins. If you want to beat Syracuse, you have to stop Anthony and the offense.
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse’s longtime coach, who’s also looking for his first title, said as much after Saturday’s game. “So much for the 2-3 zone concept. Our defense was good but our offense won it.”
The good news for Kansas is that it’s possible to stop Anthony, at least for a while, by collapsing your defense on him. The bad news is that’s what Texas did in the second half Saturday, and his teammates led the Orange on the late run that gave them a 12-point lead the Longhorns were never able to overcome. If McNamara, who is not a great shooter, is hitting his outside shot and sophomore forward Hakim Warrick is scoring inside, as they were against Texas, Syracuse is as good as anyone.
The Jayhawks get a lot of big games from both of their stars, but they’ve showed in this Tournament that they’re formidable with only one of them shining. Collison carried them over Duke in the third round as Hinrich struggled, and two nights later Hinrich was sensational against Arizona. And this isn’t just a two-man team. Keith Langford scores almost 16 points a game. Aaron Miles averages more than six assists and nine points.
Carmelo Anthony will likely be playing his last college game Monday. Collison and Hinrich will certainly play their last. Watch them, especially Anthony, a wonder to behold, but keep your mind on the Syracuse star’s teammates. They might just hold the key. Another big game by McNamara, Warrick and co., and Syracuse will cut down the nets.
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The Salon Tournament Pool o’ Experts is all over. Not one of the entrants — typists and chatterers from Sports Illustrated, the Sporting News and CBS.Sportsline.com, plus the NCAA Selection Committee, yours truly and my son Buster, whose picks were determined by coin flip — picked Kansas or Syracuse to win it all. Only Stewart Mandel of S.I. had one of them, Syracuse, in the title game. The prize for winner Tony Mejia of CBS.Sportsline.com, whom I don’t know, is dinner at my house. Transportation and lodging are not included, and a home-cooked meal is not guaranteed or implied.
The final standings, with 10 points having been awarded for each first-round win, and 20, 40, 80, 120 and 160 for each win in subsequent rounds:
Tony Mejia, CBS.Sportsline.com.com (930 points)
Mike DeCourcey, Sporting News (820)
Kyle Veltrop, Sporting News (810)
Stewart Mandel, Sports Illustrated (760)
NCAA Selection Committee (700)
Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated (680)
King Kaufman, Salon (670)
Dan Wetzel, CBS.Sportsline.com (620)
Dennis Dodd, CBS.Sportsline.com (590)
Tim Brando, Sporting News (590)
Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated (530)
Sports Illustrated printed bracket (440)
Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated (390)
Buster, Coin Flip Enthusiast (290)