It all starts – and may finish – with defense

By John Akers, Special to Yahoo! Sports
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – There's a developing theme in this NCAA tournament, and it comes to a head when LSU meets UCLA in Saturday's Final Four nightcap.

Defense may or may not win championships, but it almost certainly will vault either the Tigers or Bruins into Monday's NCAA championship game.

"I think it's going to be a defensive battle," said UCLA senior Cedric Bozeman. "They pride themselves on defense. We pride ourselves on defense. I guess the best defense wins."

George Mason might be able to match Connecticut basket-for-basket – that remains as bizarre to write as it must be to read – but the rest of this field got this far in a defensive stance. That's as much a departure from Final Fours past as it is to be without a No. 1 seed or a team from the ACC, Big East or Big Ten.

The most talented teams tend to run the most, which means that Final Four teams usually score a lot of points. But not heading into this season's Final Four. Three of these teams are among the tournament's top five in scoring defense. UCLA ranks second (54.8 points per game), and LSU fifth (58.8).

This weekend, defense is king.

"If you want to win, you've got to play good defense," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "That's not just college basketball, that's the Detroit Pistons or the San Antonio Spurs, or the Lakers of the past, the Celtics, the Lakers again in the Riley era, the Chuck Daly teams or the New England Patriots or the Green Bay Packers or the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"You talk about baseball, the team that has good pitching."

One theory floated for this tournament's defensive presence is that officials – pried free from their familiar conferences – call a looser game in the NCAA Tournament.

"They've been doing a great job of keeping the game fair," said LSU's Tyrus Thomas. "I'm less hesitant about being aggressive. I'm less hesitant about bumping somebody or just putting my body against people, because they've been letting us play. I appreciate that, the past, what, four games."

Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Thomas' 310-pound teammate, was buying none of it.

"I just seem to get screwed because of how big I am," Davis complained to laughter from a media audience that can't get enough of the big guy. "Just, all the flopping."

UCLA didn't hold Memphis to 45 points in the Oakland Regional title game by flopping. That game probably did more to help Howland convey the message that he's building UCLA in the image of his tough, unforgiving Pitt teams than anything else during his three seasons as the Bruins' coach.

With LSU, seeing is believing. Like watching Garrett Temple shut down J.J. Redick. Or the freakishly athletic Thomas swat shots.

"When you have a player like Tyrus Thomas to roam around the basket and protect some defensive errors that you may make in the perimeter," said LSU coach John Brady, "it allows you to maybe do some things that other teams may not be able to do."

Five weeks ago, the Tigers shot less than 40 percent in three consecutive games (two of them without an injured Thomas). Yet, they won all three, holding Kentucky, South Carolina and Ole Miss to an average of 60 points per game. It was the greatest indicator in the regular season of what was to come from the Tigers in the NCAA Tournament.

"Our offense has been up and down," LSU sixth-man Darnell Lazare said, "but our defense has stayed solid. Defense is what wins games. If you play defense for 40 minutes, you will have a chance to win at the end, and we've seen that throughout the season."

The Tigers have found a number of ways to hold opponents to a 58.8 scoring average on 33.9 percent shooting during the tournament, but the common thread that ran through those games, particularly the last two, was that they shut down two key players.

Against Duke, that was, of course, the All-Americans, Redick and Shelden Williams. Temple and a second LSU player chased Redick off every screen and every cut to the basket, forcing America's best shooter to miss 15 of 18 shots. Williams was double-teamed by a second post player every time he touched the ball.

"In essence, the last eight, nine minutes, we disrupted their flow of offense," Brady said.

The Tigers took more of an individual defensive approach in the 70-60 overtime win against Texas that sent them to the RCA Dome. Davis held big man LaMarcus Aldridge to four points, and Longhorns point guard Daniel Gibson also was limited.

"We took the best two players for each team," Brady said. "We made it uncomfortable for them offensively."

UCLA's two obvious targets are guards Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar. Logically, Darrel Mitchell would draw Farmar, the Bruins' heart-and-soul point guard – and Temple would be assigned Afflalo (16.2 points per game) for a matchup of 6-foot-5 second-year players.

"Hopefully, he does a great job on me," Afflalo said. "He's a great defender. Not much is going to change. I'm not going to try to force shots or take less shots. I'm going to take what's available, still play within the flow of the game."

Given their recent histories, these two defenses won't allow much offense to flow.

John Akers, the editor of Basketball Times, covered the Minneapolis regional exclusively for Yahoo! Sports.

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