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March 31, 2008

King: Final Four is No. 1 for ages

MORE: NCAA Tournament Central

Instead of a hug or high-five, Kansas coach Bill Self entered the Jayhawks' locker room Sunday and found Darnell Jackson waiting with a squeeze bottle.

"I apologize for my attire," Self told reporters in his postgame news conference. "Our team thought we just won a football game. They got me pretty good with the water jug.

"Needless to say, I'm proud. I'm happy. I'm relieved."

College basketball fans should be, too.

By defeating Davidson 59-57 in Sunday's Midwest Regional final, Kansas became the final piece of the most impressive Final Four field ever.

For the first time in NCAA history, all four No. 1 seeds advanced to college basketball's most-anticipated weekend. Memphis will take on UCLA in the first semifinal Saturday at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Kansas will play North Carolina in the nightcap, with the winners facing off April 7 for the national championship.

The Final Four teams have a combined record of 143-9.

"I don't know if there's ever been this many good teams in the Final Four," Self said.

Here is a look at each:

UCLA

Record: 35-3.

Best win: 67-64 over Stanford in the Pac-10 tournament.

Worst loss: 71-61 at Washington.

Who's hot: Kevin Love. Other than Davidson's Stephen Curry, you'd be hard-pressed to find many players that have had a better NCAA tournament than the 6-foot-9 freshman. Love is averaging 21.8 points and 11 rebounds in the Big Dance. It's sad to think the Final Four will likely be Love's last appearance as a collegian.

Pivotal player: Russell Westbrook. Speaking of guys who could leave early, don't be surprised if Westbrook bolts for the NBA, too. His athleticism gives opponents fits on the defensive end and often leads to some easy buckets in transition. Westbrook has been turnover prone at times, but when he's having a good game, the Bruins are almost impossible to beat.

Best in the clutch: Darren Collison. No Bruin makes bigger shots than the junior guard, who kept his team alive in the NCAA tournament by making a high layup off the glass in the closing seconds of a two-point, second-round victory over Texas A&M. Last season in the NCAA tournament's regional final, his three-pointers with the shot clock running down against Kansas squelched the Jayhawks' momentum.

Fast fact: This will be the third consecutive Final Four appearance for UCLA, which hasn't won a national championship since 1995.

Analysis: Even up-tempo, high-scoring teams such as Memphis struggle to put the ball in the basket against UCLA. That's because of the defensive principles that became a staple of the Bruins' program after coach Ben Howland was hired in 2003. No team in the country can dictate the pace of the game like the Bruins.

MEMPHIS

Record: 37-1.

Best win: 85-67 against Texas in regional final.

Worst loss: 66-62 to Tennessee.

Who's hot: Derrick Rose. Memphis' freshman point guard is coming into his own at the right time. He averaged 20.5 points in his first four NCAA tournament games and may be the best player in the Final Four field. Rose had 21 points and nine assists against Texas' vaunted guard tandem of D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams on Sunday.

Pivotal player: Joey Dorsey. Along with Rose, no Memphis player will be as important against UCLA as Dorsey, whose matchup with Bruins forward Kevin Love will make for one of the more compelling semifinal story lines. Dorsey, one of the best rebounders in America, is a bully who thrives on contact. He relishes games like this.

Best in the clutch: Guard Chris Douglas-Roberts didn't earn All-American honors for nothing. As good as Rose has been, CDR is the guy who time and time again has made the big play down the stretch. He averages 17.5 points and is shooting 54.8 percent overall and 41.8 percent from three-point range.

Fast fact: Folks all season have criticized Memphis for its poor free-throw shooting. Each time, coach John Calipari said the Tigers would make the foul shots "when they count." Memphis certainly did that against Texas on Sunday, when it connected on 30 of its 36 attempts. Douglas-Roberts went 14 of 17.

Analysis: So much for that notion that Memphis was the weakest No. 1 seed in this year's tournament. The Tigers defeated their last two opponents (Michigan State and Texas) by 18 points each. They'll be facing a different kind of animal in UCLA, which features a pair of NBA guards (Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook) along with the best post player they've seen all season in Kevin Love. Still, win or lose, no one should question anything about the excellence of this team. Not anymore.

NORTH CAROLINA

Record: 36-2.

Most impressive win: 76-68 at Duke.

Worst loss: 82-80 to Maryland.

Who's hot: Tyler Hansbrough. The junior forward is averaging 21 points and 9.5 rebounds in the NCAA tournament, and he's scored in double figures in every game this season. Kansas State's Michael Beasley is the better NBA prospect, but no one can say Hansbrough doesn't deserve National Player of the Year honors. No one has had a better season.

Pivotal player: Ty Lawson. Even though they kept winning, the Tar Heels weren't the same team when Lawson missed six games in February with an injury. Coach Roy Williams said Lawson is the fastest guard he's ever coached and that North Carolina can't play at the tempo it desires with him on the bench. He's the X-factor on this team.

Best in the clutch: Hansbrough. Hate to be boring, but is there any player on this team better with the game on the line? He looked like Michael Jordan on Saturday, using head fakes to get open for pull-up jumpers from 18 feet. Hansbrough's a force on the glass and is shooting 80.6 percent from the foul stripe. There isn't much to dislike about Hansbrough's game.

Fast fact: The Tar Heels averaged 93 points in their first four NCAA tournament games, which they won by an average margin of 25.3 points. That should make for a fun matchup against Kansas, a team that thrives in an up-tempo game.

Analysis: Without a doubt, one of the sexiest tournament story lines in years will be Williams going against his former team in Kansas. It will be an emotional game for Williams who, inexplicably, has been treated rudely by Kansas fans since he left for his alma mater in April 2003.

KANSAS

Record: 35-3.

Most impressive win: 84-74 over Texas in the Big 12 tournament championship.

Worst loss: 61-60 at Oklahoma State.

Who's hot: Sasha Kaun. The 6-foot-10 Russian is making the most of his final NCAA tournament. He scored 13 points off the bench against Davidson on Sunday and, overall, has been the Jayhawks' best and most consistent post player over the past three weeks. Kaun will be on an NBA roster next season.

Most pivotal player: Brandon Rush. Kansas is a different team when Rush is at his best. He made just four of 14 shots against Davidson on Sunday but he continues to contribute in so many other ways. Not many guards rebound as well as Rush especially on the offensive end and he's grossly underrated as a defender.

Clutch player: Mario Chalmers. Kansas is the most balanced team in the country. Still, in crunch time, Self wants the ball in Chalmers' hands. He's creative in the lane and has a soft touch on his midrange jumper and has the ability to catch fire from beyond the arc. Chalmers seems to play his best in big games. Earlier this month he hit eight three-pointers against Texas in the Big 12 championship game.

Fast fact: Not many teams in NCAA history have had an easier path to the Final Four than Kansas, which advanced by defeating No. 16 Portland State, No. 8 UNLV, No. 12 Villanova and No. 10 Davidson.

Analysis: If the Jayhawks are ever going to win an NCAA title, this is the year to do it. Kaun and starters Darnell Jackson and Russell Robinson are seniors, and two underclassmen (Rush and Darrell Arthur) are expected to enter the NBA draft. It could be a while before Self assembles a team with such a good mix of talent and depth.

MORE: NCAA Tournament Central

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.



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