March Madness part one: LSU vs. UCLA

point counterpoint

The Louisiana State University Tigers have demanded respect since the inaugural tip-off of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

After a crushing 80-64 victory over 13th-seeded Iona, nobody listened. Skepticism grew after LSU squeaked out a 58-57 victory over 12th-seeded Texas A&M, with the victory coming after Darrell Mitchell’s long three-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining.

But, after LSU notched thrilling victories over both first-seeded Duke and second-seeded Texas in their bracket, fans better open their eyes. LSU has punched their ticket to the Final Four in Indianapolis, and when the final buzzer sounds on April 3, they will be the team that will climb the ladder, cut away the mesh and toast to its national championship glory.

Led by All-American Glen Davis and freshman Tyrus Thomas, the Tigers boast the strongest front-court tandem in the tournament. Davis and Thomas are giants—each 6’9”—while Davis packs a frightening 310 lbs into his bone-crushing frame. Together this duo has led LSU with an average of 30.8 points per game and will be impossible for smaller teams to handle. LSU has shot a cool 47 per cent from the field this season, largely due to their dominance in the paint.

From three-point range, Darrell Mitchell is as sure-fire as they come, knocking down 82 three-pointers on the year with a 34 per cent success rate. With Mitchell adding an additional 17.2 points per game, LSU establishes itself as a threat from anywhere. Opponents will have nightmares devising defensive schemes against this offensive juggernaut, as both man-to-man and zone systems leave large gaping holes waiting to be exploited.

Defensively, LSU has proven itself as an elite unit in 2006, holding Duke to just 54 points—its lowest output since 1996.

LSU’s dominating presence at both the centre and power forward positions provides stability on the defensive glass and limits opponents to few second chance opportunities. Davis and Thomas together average 18 rebounds per game and an additional 5.3 blocks per contest. LSU’s ability to disguise combinations of zone and man defences will be a challenge for any squad to break down, as Texas witnessed on March 25. LSU held Texas to a lacklustre 30.4 per cent shooting from the field.

LSU’s ability to focus and execute their game plan will separate them from the rest of the pack. The reigning Southeastern Conference champions possess the momentum and talent required to secure a national championship and will finally earn their much-deserved respect as March Madness comes to a close.

–James Theuerle

Playing in their home state in Oakland, California, the UCLA Bruins clearly had the advantage when facing Memphis on Saturday. With the thunderous chants of “U-C-L-A” at Oakland Arena, the 2nd-seeded Bruins, led by guard Arron Afflalo’s 15 points, helped defeat Memphis in an ugly 50-45 win.

With the Bruins earning their first trip to the final four since 1995, UCLA is hungry for a championship. The team is led by star sophomore guards Jordan Farmar and Afflalo, who are the Bruin’s top scorers. Both guards are loaded with talent, and Farmar is excellent in triggering the offence from the point. His strong play has allowed him to lead the Pac-10 conference in assists.

Afflalo is an excellent three-point shooter and a solid man-to-man defender. The talent and strong play of the two translates into impressive stats for both sophomores: Farmar averages 13.8 points per game and 5.4 assists per game, and Afflalo 17 points per game and 4.4 RPG.

The presence of both players on the court will give their opponent, LSU, a tough task trying to counteract their play, thus giving UCLA a huge advantage in the backcourt.

And don’t forget about the emergence of freshman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who averages 8.6 points per game and 8.3 rebounds per game. UCLA has seen great stuff already and is expecting even bigger things from this rookie.

He has been described by critics as an extremely athletic player with the tools to become a superstar. In addition, his 6’7” frame allows him to be solid on defence, as he’s a force when it comes to rebounding. Finally, he’s reliable at the free throw line, shooting a solid 75 per cent. His presence has helped take some weight off UCLA’s guards. If he continues his strong play, LSU will have a tough time containing this Bruins squad.

As a team, UCLA likes to play games where they can dictate the tempo with their defense. Former Pittsburgh coach and current Bruins head coach Ben Howland has brought to UCLA much of his traditional style: his team plays a physical game in the paint, and the Bruins shuffle big men in and out of the game to wear down opponents.

Helped by immense talent in the backcourt, a freshman that is breaking out, and a coach that has so far executed his strategy, UCLA is shaping up to be a favourite to overcome LSU and play in the finals. It’s only a matter of time before Afflalo and the Bruins bring back the mesh from Indianapolis to Los Angeles.

–Rohit Aiyer

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