GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP)—When the NCAA released its brackets two weeks ago, many observers relished the prospect of a West regional final between top-seeded Connecticut and No. 2 Memphis.
Only one problem with that: Missouri.
The third-seeded Tigers left Memphis gasping for air in the regional semifinals. Now they’ll turn their frenetic style on the Huskies, who outlasted Purdue in the other semifinal.
“They advertise it as the 40 fastest minutes in basketball,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said on Friday, “And I’m a believer.”
How will the West be won?
UConn (30-4) will try to force a halfcourt game and pound the ball inside to 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet, who was as imposing as a saguaro cactus against Purdue.
With no starters over 6-foot-9, Mizzou (31-6) will answer with a relentless running game that dropped 102 points on Memphis, which had been conceding 57.6 points per game.
It’s the first meeting between the schools—and the winner earns a trip to the Final Four in Detroit. The team that controls the tempo is likely to cut down the nets on Saturday afternoon.
“We have got to somehow just disrupt what they want to do,” Mizzou coach Mike Anderson said.
This game is about contrasting styles, on and off the court.
At UConn, Final Four trips are expected. At Missouri, they’re still a dream.
The Huskies are gunning for their third national title—and the road to both their previous championships, in 1999 and 2004, went through regionals in Phoenix. Technically, this regional is in Glendale, to the west of Phoenix, and it’s being staged in the Arizona Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium instead of U.S. Airways Center, home to the Phoenix Suns.
When this season tipped off, UConn was among a select group of legitimate national title contenders. The Huskies have weathered some adversity, including the loss of point guard Jerome Dyson in February and, this week, a Yahoo! Sports report alleging that UConn broke NCAA rules when it recruited former basketball player Nate Miles.
“Have we truly found ourselves?” Calhoun said. “If we get to Detroit, we’ll find ourselves.”
Missouri has had its share of hoops success. But the Tigers have never reached the Final Four, falling one win shy four times, most recently in 2002, when they lost to Big 12 rival Oklahoma.
The Final Four hardly seemed a possibility coming off last season, when Mizzou went 16-16 and finished 10th in the Big 12.
With 15 more wins than a year ago, Missouri is the nation’s most improved team, and the Tigers’ 31 victories set a school record. But Missouri remains a mystery to many even after sweeping to the Big 12 tourney title.
“I think after this season, a lot of us will look back and really realize what we just did,” guard Matt Lawrence said. “But at this moment right now, UConn is only on our minds.”
The Tigers seemed unfazed by the spotlight on Friday—and they didn’t appear nervous about facing a team many expect to win the national title.
“I think we’ve yet to actually reach our full potential,” guard J.T. Tiller said.
The Tigers’ swift transformation has come under Anderson, in his third year at Columbia. He’s a Nolan Richardson disciple who blitzes opponents with waves of fresh bodies off the bench.
That style proved effective in the 102-91 victory over Memphis. Mizzou led by 24 early in the second half and shot 53.2 percent from the floor.
“What Missouri did to that defense is absolutely astounding,” Calhoun said.
Against Memphis, nine Missouri Tigers played at least 11 minutes, and only Tiller was on the floor for more than 30. Memphis, by contrast, had only one reserve play more than six minutes, and four starters had more than 30 minutes.
Against Purdue, only one UConn reserve played more than 10 minutes—guard Kemba Walker—and all five starters logged at least 28 minutes.
Almost to a man, UConn players dismissed suggestions that the Tigers could wear them down. Calhoun wasn’t so sure.
“I’m a little more concerned with depth than they are,” he said.
Thabeet controlled the middle against Purdue, blocking four shots and essentially turning the lane into a no-fly zone for the Boilermakers.
The Tigers hope to wear down Thabeet in a fullcourt game, or perhaps get him in foul trouble. He’s fouled out of two of UConn’s four losses.
“I think the biggest key is we’ve got to get that big beast to run,” Missouri forward DeMarre Carroll said. “So hopefully we can get him running up and down the court, and fatigue could be a big factor in this game.”
Thabeet may have to drift away from the post to guard Mizzou’s big men, who often launch jumpers from outside the lane. But he said he’ll have plenty of help.
“The key is going to be team defense, not just me,” he said. “I always have my guys help me. A lot of times I help them, so we’re just going to go over there and play five as one on the defensive end, and we should be able to take care of the game tomorrow.”