I've broken down my 2008 NCAA Tournament picks by region and Final Four. Also available are links to my 2008 NCAA Tournament Stats, Facts, Trends and Tips, and NCAA Tournament Credo. I got three out of the four Final Four teams right last year (Florida, Georgetown and UCLA), so hopefully I have similar success this March.
I've been going back and forth in regard to this game for a while. On one hand, I love Kansas' athleticism, dynamic 3-point shooting and solid defense. With the exception of Darrell Arthur (the team's leading scorer) and Sherron Collins, an exceptional sixth man, this Jayhawks squad has been together for three years. Their quest for a championship was denied last year by powerhouse UCLA, so it's not like this group has choked recently (the two consecutive first-round losses took place when they were young.)
On the other hand, there's no denying that Tyler "Psycho-T" Hansbrough is awesome, unless, of course, you're a Duke fan. The Player of the Year, Psycho-T is capable of dominating inside and kicking it out to Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, Will Graves and Marcus Ginyard. Ty Lawson is one of the best floor generals in this tournament, and he's fully capable of carrying the Tar Heels to a championship.
So, who has the edge? This is so even it's hard to say, but because I'm forced to decide, I have to give a very slight edge to Kansas. The Jayhawks shoot a bit better from the field (49.4 percent) and beyond the arc (39.6) than the Tar Heels (48.2 and 37.8). More importantly, North Carolina's defense is suspect. I think it'll be easier for Kansas to score than North Carolina.
Of course, you could argue that the Jayhawks' poor free-throw shooting could be their downfall. While North Carolina is 75.4 percent from the charity stripe, Kansas is only 66.0. It's not like Memphis' mark of 59.6 percent, but it's pretty bad. So, you can make a case for either squad. I'm sticking with my gut and selecting the Jayhawks.
Winner: #1 Kansas
#2 Texas (28-6) vs. #1 UCLA (31-3)
About two months ago, I made a list of teams who had a great chance at winning the national championship in college basketball. The list was comprised of four squads: UCLA, North Carolina, Texas and Kansas. Notice which four I have in my Final Four? Quite frankly, I would be completely shocked if at least three of them didn't make it to San Antonio. Memphis wasn't on that list. Neither was Duke. Nor was Georgetown. Just those four.
I have UCLA listed first for a reason. Any frequent reader of my college basketball picks against the spread or anyone I've talked to in person about college basketball knows that I picked UCLA to win the national title the day every Florida Gator declared for the NBA Draft last year.
So, nothing against Texas. I think the Longhorns are an incredible squad. I just think UCLA is the best one out there. I'll have a list of reasons below...
Winner: #1 UCLA
2008 NCAA Championship
#1 Kansas (31-3) vs. #1 UCLA (31-3)
The following are a list of things I look for in a champion. You'll see that UCLA applies to all of my rules:
1. Exceptional Point Guard: This one's a no-brainer. Darren Collison can get almost any shot he wants. He distributes the ball well. He doesn't turn it over. He can easily score 15 a night. And as a kicker, he shoots close to 51 percent from three-point range! How is that even possible?
2. Other Veteran Guards: Junior Josh Shipp is a very underrated player; his numbers (13.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.3 apg) don't really translate into what he does for the team. Meanwhile, sophomore Russell Westbrook (12.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.3 apg) has really stepped up this year in Arron Afflalo's absence.
3. Complementary Size: Kevin Love (17.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg) is more than just complementary; he's one of the top five players in the country. All he can do is pound the ball inside, rebound with the best of them, block shots and nail 36 percent of his threes. Oh, and he hits clutch jumpers. All in a day's work. In addition to Love, the Bruins have a collection of other solid big men, including Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Alfred Abota, Lorenzo Mata-Real and James Keefe. You don't see too many teams that deep in the front court.
4. Ability to Win on the Road: Because I chastise teams for their inability to win away contests, it should come as no surprise that I love road warriors. The Bruins own victories at Arizona (19-14), Arizona State (19-12), USC (21-11), Washington State (24-8) and Stanford (26-7). UCLA also has neutral-site victories over Stanford (26-7), USC (21-11) and Michigan State (25-8). I doubt any team in this field has such a great collection of visiting wins on its resume.
5. Experience: How about two straight Final Four appearances? I firmly believe that the Bruins would have won two national titles if it wasn't for Florida. And now you see why I loved them as soon as all the Gators bolted for the NBA.
6. Excellent Defense: Holding your opponent to 59 points per game... think that's good? And that's not a Wisconsin stat either because the Bruins average 74 themselves; they're not in the mid-60s like the sloth Big Ten squads.
7. Capable Coach: I don't want a coach who doesn't know how to prepare for a full-court press like Stanford's Trent Johnson. Ben Howland is arguably one of the elite coaches in the country, so no concerns here.
8. No Quirks: The Bruins hit their free throws (73.1 percent). No one's really hurt except Mbah a Moute. There aren't any character issues or distractions as far as I know.
Every year, I try to find a team that fits all eight of those criteria. UCLA is the only team in this season's field of 65 that does. Bruins win the title.