TIPPING OFF: First 2 Final 4 spots on the line
By JOHN MARSHALL AP Basketball Writer
The first two spots in the Final Four will be decided on Saturday. Both games will be strength against strength.
In the West Region, Gonzaga and the best offense in Division I will face Texas Tech and the nation’s best defense.
The South Region will have a similar vibe with high-scoring guard Carsen Edwards and Purdue playing Virginia and its stingy D.
Led the head-butting begin.
Gonzaga (33-3), the top seed in the West, whips the ball around like tic-tack-toe passes in hockey, five players often touching the ball in a matter of seconds to set up the best shot possible.
The Zags are the highest-scoring, best-shooting and most lopsided-winning team in the nation. They are the most efficient offense, according to KenPom.com, and had double-digit wins over their first three opponents to reach the Elite Eight for the fourth time.
Gonzaga can shoot from the outside, has one of the nation’s best frontcourts and can be unstoppable when they get their transition game going.
“That’s what it’s like every night in the Big 12,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “You’re playing against NBA players, not a lot of one-dimensional guys either, guys that can do different things.”
The Zags will have their hands full in Anaheim, California, against third-seeded Texas Tech (29-6), which turned its Sweet 16 game against Michigan into a stomping.
Michigan’s bid to reach its second straight Final Four ran into a big Red Raiders wall. Texas Tech closed up the middle, contested jumpers and turned away nearly everything the Wolverines attempted at the rim.
The Red Raiders held Michigan to 44 points, 32 percent shooting and 1 for 19 on its 3-point attempts.
That, of course, is no surprise coming from KenPom’s most efficient defense.
“Texas Tech’s is just tough as nails, don’t make a mistake, don’t miss an assignment, gap oriented, with all their help built in and a real conviction to guard you as a team,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “And it’s tough. They don’t give you any easy shots and they’re very handsy, and they attempt to take a lot of charges, too.”
A mirror image could play out across the country in Louisville, Kentucky.
Top-seeded Virginia has made its calling card defense under coach Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers have stifled their way into the Elite Eight.
Virginia has yet to allow more 54 points in the NCAA Tournament and makes opponents feel as if the Cavaliers have six players on the court. Virginia has superb interior defense and puts lots of pressure on ball-handers, forcing opponents into mistakes and missed shots.
To reach the Final Four for the first time since 1980, the Boilermakers will have to find some way to solve that stingy D.
“For the most part, Virginia, I feel like is apart from a lot of teams defensively,” Edwards said. “It will be something different for us.”
So will guarding Edwards for the Cavaliers.
The junior guard averages 23.8 points per game despite constant attention from opposing defense and can be nearly unstoppable when he gets hot. Edwards had it going against Tennessee in the Sweet 16, scoring 29 points and hit two free throws to send the game to overtime in the 99-94 victory.
If Virginia is to break its 35-year Final Four drought, it will have to at least slow Edwards.
“When you play players that are that special, that can shoot from unlimited range, you just do your best as a team to make it hard for him, and then individually to make him hit tough, contested shots,” Bennett said. “That’s always the goal of the defense.”
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