NCAA Regional Final Previews: Saturday

The first two spots in the Final Four get claimed today, with Florida-Louisville and Syracuse-Ohio State set to go. Note that the winners of these games go to opposite national semifinals in New Orleans next Saturday and that all remaining NCAA games are televised by CBS. TheSportsNotebook previews both of today’s games…

WEST REGION (Phoenix, 4:30 PM ET): Louisville-Florida
This one’s going to be all about pace. If Louisville can turn this into kind of ugly game, the Cardinals will be in good shape to win. They’re on a great run in this tournament, but they’ve gotten matchups that have worked to their style. Neither New Mexico in the second round, or Michigan State on Thursday night, were teams that would really drive the action. On the flip side, the fact Louisville was not only able to beat Michigan State playing ugly, but win decisively, tells us just how well the Cards are executing in their natural style of play, and who imperative it will be for the Gators to push the pace.

Defense on the perimeter is going to be everything for Louisville, because Florida has three-point shooters that can light it up in a hurry. Kenny Boynton, Ervin Walker and center Erik Murphy can all drain it from behind the arc. In a tournament were perimeter-oriented teams like Duke, Missouri and Michigan went out early, Florida keeps rolling along. But it’s also going to be important for these Florida guards to defend and create problems for Louisville point guard Peyton Siva. If they can fluster Siva and create some turnovers, that’s the surest way to open up the floor and the Gators can get their open three-point looks on the break.

At the start of the tournament I said the West Regional would be the one that would be gutted. It’s up in the air as to whether I’ve been right or not. On the one hand, you do have a 4 vs. 7 matchup in the regional final. On the flip side, three of the top four advanced into the Sweet 16. And I did give a bottom line that a team seeded 5th or worse would win this bracket. I’m sticking with this and taking Florida.

TheSportsNotebook has certainly not forgotten the obvious storyline in this game, which is Rick Pitino going against Billy Donovan on the 25th anniversary of when they were a coach-player tandem on Providence’s Final Four team. That 1987 NCAA Tournament was a good one top to bottom and start to finish, and it’s covered in detail in Memories of March Madness. Let me make my Shameless Saturday Plug in asking you to check it out for just $2.99. Not just 1987, but the best of the modern NCAA Tournament, from 1976 forward is included.

EAST REGION (Boston, 7:05 PM ET): Syracuse-Ohio State
A region that both TheSportsNotebook, and others, thought was soft, has a chalk finish as the top two seeds collide in the Boston Garden.  Syracuse’s zone played very well on Thursday night against Wisconsin. Yes, I know the Badgers hit 14 treys, but the Orange’s disruption of any interior passing made sure the three was all Wisconsin could hit. If Jim Boeheim’s team messes up Ohio State’s rhythm like that, he’ll be on his way to New Orleans –a place he joined Pitino and Donovan at for the 1987 Final Four, as well as winning the 2003 national title. That ’03 Syracuse team is recounted in Memories of March Madness. Wait, I used up my Shameless Plug quota for this article. Sorry.

Disrupting Ohio State’s going to be a lot easier said than done though, because the Buckeye forwards, Jared Sullinger and DeShaun Thomas should be much more comfortable and athletic handling the ball in traffic. I’m not suggesting they’ll go off for the big games both had against Cincinnati on Thursday night and Gonzaga last weekend. But I expect to see crisper passing from Ohio State than I did from Wisconsin, with the opportunity to break the zone down And this is the game where the absence of Fab Melo comes to roost. In a lot of ways Syracuse has been fortunate. Kansas State’s Jamar Samuels could have capitalized on the absence of Melo and he was suspended a couple hours before game time for taking a couple hundred bucks from an AAU coach he knew (Oh, the horror of it all). Vanderbilt’s Festus Ezeli and Jeffrey Taylor could have made hay, but Wisconsin took them out. The Badgers weren’t a team that was going to go inside in any event. But Ohio State well, and whether it’s points, rebounds or just letting the offense run through them, I see Sullinger and Thomas continuing their strong play and leading Ohio State to the Final Four.