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March 26, 2007

Final Four teams all play without fear

Now this is a Final Four.

It's not going to be for the faint of heart. It's going to be a Final Four that would make a football coach proud.

Atlanta is going to be populated by four teams that are hungry. They will bring it for 40 minutes, and they won't shy away from physical contact. They'll play defense with every ounce of their beings. Perhaps the Falcons and Hawks should take notes.

There are precious few reasons to discount the chances of any of these teams.

Florida, the top seed in the Midwest, is the first defending national champ to make it back to the Final Four since Michigan State fought its way through the bracket in 2001 after beating the Gators in the 2000 title game. UF has beaten its four opponents with a combination of superior size and timely outside shooting. The Gators got 44 points out of starting backcourt mates Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey against Oregon on Sunday in the regional final. If they get anywhere close to that from here on out, the other three coaches in the national semifinals will tell you they don't have a chance.

Florida's opponent in one semifinal will be the team it faced in last year's national title game, UCLA. The second-seeded Bruins, champion of the West Regional, are playing the best defense of the four teams headed for Georgia. That is saying something when you consider all four rank among the top 32 in the nation in scoring defense. UCLA has smothered its NCAA opponents, yielding no more than 55 points in a game thus far. The Bruins also have gotten a couple of huge efforts from their best player, shooting guard Arron Afflalo.

If any team has struggled to get to this point it's Ohio State. The Buckeyes were dead in the water in the second round against Xavier, but a missed free throw, a huge 3-pointer and an overtime later, and they made it to the regional semis. There, they trailed Tennessee by 20 before rallying to win 85-84. The solace for coach Thad Matta is his team may have been rounding into form. The Buckeyes played their best game in ousting Memphis to win the South Regional. The backcourt has been especially strong, with both freshman point Mike Conley Jr. and senior Ron Lewis significantly raising their play. And there is the small matter of the defense of a very large freshman.

If any team is a surprise here, albeit mild, it's Georgetown. The Hoyas, also known for their smothering defense, came up with a season-high 96 points to upset top-seeded North Carolina in overtime in the East Regional final. GU's offense was nearly perfect against the Tar Heels. They shot a sizzling 57.6 percent (38 of 66, including 8-for-14 from 3-point range) and had 26 assists to just 10 turnovers. It took every bit of it to subdue UNC, which outscored Georgetown by 17 at the free-throw line. The Hoyas have gotten big play from big men Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green, but don't discount the steady play of guard Jonathan Wallace. He had 19 points, seven assists and just one turnover in 38 minutes on Sunday.

So on one side you've got the rematch from last year's final. On the other side you've got the battle of the 7-footers in Greg Oden and Hibbert, with two underrated backcourts facing off as well.

It should be all we expect in a Final Four. Four great teams, all playing their best basketball, all eager to win a trophy that only one can have.

I can hardly wait.



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