Memphis Tigers (35-1) vs. Michigan State Spartans (27-8)
When: 9:57 p.m. ET tonight
1. Why Their Achilles Heel Won't Matter (how Tiger fans can rationalize the free throw shooting). By this point, you may have noticed that the Tigers struggle from the charity stripe, which is likely why you picked them to lose to Pitt in the Sweet 16 or to Texas in the Elite 8. The free throw woes have been scrutinized by every college hoops commentator on the planet, and yet the Tigers still have only one loss and seem to win all the close games. Even if more teams employ the Hack-a-Tiger strategy, here are five reasons why free throws won't matter:
(1) The Tigers actually make more free throws than their opponents. At a 14.2 per game clip, that's better than Michigan State (13.7) or Texas (13.4).
(2) Offensive efficiency: the Tigers are #11 in the nation at 113.7 points per 100 possessions. If the Tigers were to shoot two free throws on every possession at their 59% season average their OE would be 118 points per 100 possessions (118 made free throws out of 200).
(3) The Tigers shot a horrendous 46% from the line against Mississippi State, which is reason for concern. However, they shot a respectable 70% in the CUSA tournament, so expect the Tigers to stabilize closer to their true average. CDR and Derrick Rose are better than the 56% they shot against Mississippi State, which came after a combined 9-11 performance (89%) against UT-Arlington.
(4) If teams hack away early they risk getting into foul trouble, and Memphis' bench depth will become the difference maker.
(5) Calipari will bench Joey Dorsey and his 37% free throw percentage on offensive possessions late in close games.
2. When Dorsey Shows Up.Last year before their Elite Eight game against Ohio State, Joey Dorsey made the mistake of calling out Greg Oden, "It's David and Goliath, except I'm Goliath." Dorsey's trash talk was more prophetic than he realized; he was held scoreless and grabbed only 3 rebounds as Oden reminded him of who actually won that battle. Fast-forward to Memphis' round 2 game against Mississippi State. Against a strong Bulldogs frontcourt, Dorsey turned in a dominating performance with 13 points, 12 boards and 6 blocks. Dorsey has been inconsistent all season, but when he performs up to his ability as he did against the Bulldogs, Memphis is tough to beat. Strangely, the only free throw Dorsey made out of five attempts came after someone pulled a curtain open, shooting a beam of sunlight directly into Dorsey's eyes. "The old curtain wave move," coach John Calipari commented afterward. "Hadn't seen that in a while." There is probably no truth to the rumor that Dorsey will now switch to shooting free throws with his eyes closed, although this is a guy who once took free throw tips from a Memphis fan in the middle of a game, so anything is possible. Penny Hardaway apparently worked on free throws some with Dorsey in Little Rock, but whatever advice he gave clearly hasn't sunk in yet.
3. Still Waiting on that Second Loss... Mike Freeman wrote a front page column for CBS Sportsline on Monday comparing the Tigers to an "AND 1" team. Freeman suggests that the Tigers do not distribute the ball or play as a team, but rather are a group of superior athletes interested only in long threes and highlight reel dunks. Like nearly every other "expert" with the exception of Digger Phelps, Freeman expects the Tigers to fall short of the Final Four for a 3rd consecutive year. He is correct that the Tigers are the most athletic team in the tournament, but there are several problems with his AND 1 analogy. First off, the Tigers' defense is the strongest part of their game. They rank second nationally in defensive efficiency, allowing only 86.5 points per 100 possessions, and their turnover margin (+4.4) is considerably better than Michigan State (-1.2), Texas (+2.9), UCLA (+2.5), Kansas (+3.0) and UNC (+1.7). Second, the Tigers tally more assists per game (16.0) than either UCLA (14.5) or Texas (14.5). Yes, Mike, a team that features Derrick Rose at the point surely must have trouble distributing the ball. Sadly, Freeman's column is the sort of material that gets passed off for sports journalism these days, but the sentiment that Memphis is due to lose sooner rather than later is shared nationwide. In a Monday ESPN.com poll of which 1-seed is likely to lose first, the results were overwhelming (Kansas - 11%, UNC - 8%, UCLA - 16%, Memphis - 65%). Memphis has reason to play with a chip on their shoulder this weekend. They've made the Elite Eight two years running and would love to prove their critics wrong by finally breaking through to the Final Four. — Jay Lewis
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
1. Somebody Please Mess With Texas. One of my favorite sports-related memories ever was joining a small group of friends at a sports bar in East Lansing to watch the 2003 South Regional Semifinal. Alongside a few hundred friendly strangers, we watched as scrappy upstart Michigan State upended defending national champion Maryland on a thrilling last minute slam by freshman wunderkind Paul Davis. It was a surprisingly euphoric moment overflowing with brotherhood, camaraderie and nacho cheese. Then two days later, all illusions I had about fair play in college sports were destroyed when the Spartans' reward was a game versus the Texas Longhorns on the totally neutral floor of San Antonio's Alamodome. Has anyone pointed out that this year's Texas squad actually benefited by losing the Big 12 championship game, which got them "demoted" to a 2 seed in the South Regional being held in their home state? I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who has made that connection ever, but I mention it only because of this nightmare I have about beating a highly-favored, more athletic team in a hard fought game, only to run into an obnoxious roadblock created by an unfair scheduling scenario. Yes, I know how to hold a grudge.
2. From Each According To His Ability. MSU is 13-1 when Marquise Gray scores in double figures. Sounds helpful, until you remember that the junior has only scored in double figures 14 times in his career. Tom Izzo's system stifles superstar achievement in favor of balanced team play, so you never know where Michigan State's next hero will come from, but they do seem to find a lot of them. Pittsburgh lost to Michigan State not because of poor three-point shooting, bad rebounding, or even a late 8-point surge by Drew Neitzel (although those certainly didn't help), but because at several key moments in the second half, when jump shots were hard to come by and everyone else in Green looked flat footed and useless, freshman Kalin Lucas blew past his sluggish defenders for vitally important layups. He held off the Panther rallies long enough to save the Spartans' season and with any luck, John Calipari will not be aware of that fact, fail to read this post and allow him to run wild in the paint. Or maybe Goran Suton will hide a bucket of confetti in his shorts and throw it on a referee. Someone you won't expect will have to come up big, but if I could tell you who that was it wouldn't be unexpected, would it?
3. To Each According To His Needs. It's pretty rare for college basketball announcers not named Packer to criticize anybody, so it was a telling moment when CBS pointed out that junior center Idong Ibok's own teammates were a little peeved at his somewhat useless performance in the second round. If the TV men saw fit to mention it, those guys must have been really pissed. To be fair, the I.I. Captain (just made that up!) never picked up a basketball before his senior year of high school and his hands rival only Roberto Duran for their stone-like qualities, so he can't be expected to do complex basketball maneuvers like catch passes. He can, however, foul the shit out of people and will likely be called upon to do just that tonight. Memphis plays what I can only assume is an up-tempo, freewheeling, but undisciplined brand of basketball (I wouldn't know; my TV only receives the Big Ten Network) so I imagine the Spartan game plan to be: collapse the defense, hack any any all Tiger big men to death, dare their guards to beat them from beyond the three-point arc, then ravenously scoop up rebounds when they fail. (MSU's last two opponents shot 20% from three-land.) Provided they have enough bodies to avoid a Wisconsin-like disaster — four Spartans fouled out of the Big Ten tourney semifinal, including three in 56 seconds — it's just crazy enough to work! — Dashiell Bennett