April 2, 2009

By Anthony Oliva III NCAA.com

The four regional champions descend on Detroit this weekend for the highly anticipated culmination of the NCAA tournament - the Final Four. The action kicks off with Connecticut vs. Michigan State at 6 p.m. on Thursday and is followed by North Carolina against Villanova. The national champion will be crowned on Monday.

Before the 72,000-plus fans pack Ford Field, here's a breakdown of the four teams left:

Connecticut Huskies Road To Detroit: Region: West (1 seed) Wins over: Chattanooga (103-47), Texas A&M (92-66), Purdue (72-60) and Missouri (82-75). Average Margin of Victory: 25.25 points

Strengths UConn is very formidable in the frontcourt. With 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet at center, points in the paint are never easy to come by against the Huskies. When you add Jeff Adrien, who is averaging a double-double for the year, and a resurgent Stanley Robinson, UConn has a lot of weapons in the post.

Weaknesses UConn has shown the ability to get to the line at will in the tournament, but for the year the Huskies are not a great free-throw shooting team. They shoot only 68 percent as a team and if the Huskies find themselves in a close game this could be an issue.

Star Performer A.J. Price has been outstanding in the tournament, but Thabeet is still the key for the Huskies. Thabeet is a defensive force, averaging over four blocks per game this year, and also wreaks havoc on the boards, having three games of at least 13 rebounds in the tournament.

X-Factor The Huskies have a knack of producing great wingmen and Kemba Walker may be in line to be the next great one. The lightning-quick freshman scored 23 points, had five assists and five rebounds in just 25 minutes of action against Missouri in the Elite Eight and his energy off the bench could fuel a few more Connecticut wins.

Interesting Subplot Connecticut is being investigated for a recruiting violation, which could potentially be a distraction, but UConn also seems to have history on its side. When UConn won its last two titles, which came five years apart in 1999 and 2004, the Huskies came out of the Arizona region. Now, five years since its last title, Connecticut finds itself in the Final Four again coming out of the Arizona region.

Final Analysis With Thabeet and Jeff Adrien down low, the Huskies have been a dominant team in the paint all year. If point guard A.J. Price, who is averaging 20 points a game in the tournament, continues to shine, the Huskies will be tough to beat.

Michigan State Spartans Road To Detroit: Region: Midwest (2 seed) Wins over: Robert Morris (77-62), USC (74-69), Kansas (67-62) and Louisville (64-52). Average Margin of Victory: 9.25 points

Strengths A hallmark of a Tom Izzo team is rebounding, and this team can do it with the best of them. The Spartans rarely get outrebounded and average nearly ten more rebounds a game than their opponent.

Weaknesses Nobody on Michigan State averaged over 15 points a game this year and against a tough defensive team like UConn, the Spartans will need someone to step up and carry the scoring load.

Star Performer Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas can really get it done for the Spartans. He is the only Spartan to score in double figures in every tournament game and he gives Michigan State its most consistent scoring threat.

X-Factor Travis Walton's contributions may not appear on the box score but his impact is crucial for Michigan State. The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year is normally matched up against one of the opponent's top offensive players and he helped limit Louisville's Terrance Williams to only five points in the Elite Eight.

Interesting Subplot It's no so often a team gets to play in the Final Four in its home state. In fact, this is the first time it's happened since Duke did it in 1994, and the Spartans figure to have some measure of home-court advantage, playing in Ford Field, only 91 miles away from its home court.

Final Analysis Tom Izzo has this team playing stingy defense and rebounding well. If Goran Suton can hold his own against Hasheem Thabeet and use his range to take Thabeet away from the basket, the Spartans have a chance to play for a national title.

North Carolina Tar Heels Road To Detroit: Region: South (1 seed) Wins over: Radford (101-58), LSU (84-70), Gonzaga (98-77) and Oklahoma (72-60) Average Margin of Victory: 22.5 points

Strengths Simply put, this Tar Heel team can score. They have arguably the most firepower of any team in the nation. UNC averaged 90 points a game for the season and with Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green, among others contributing, UNC can get scoring from just about anywhere.

Weaknesses This is a UNC team that gives up a lot of points - over 72 points a game on the year. North Carolina's offensive explosiveness hides this fact, but if the Tar Heels struggle to score points, their lapses on defense could become a factor.

Star Performer It's hard not to focus on last year's Player of the Year Hansbrough here, but Lawson is the engine for this high-octane offense. Averaging over 20 points and nearly seven assists with an injured big toe this tournament, Lawson can do it all for the Tar Heels.

X-Factor This team has so many stars that can score that someone coming off the bench like 6-foot-10 Ed Davis is important for them. He is a tough, reliable defender in the post and has added just over eight points, five rebounds in just over 14 minutes a game in the tournament.

Interesting Subplot After losing to eventual national champion Kansas in the Final Four last year, some UNC players decided to come back for another run at the title despite the temptation from the NBA. The Tar Heels were No. 1 the preseason poll and have dealt with high expectation all season, but they are only two wins away from reaching their goal and pressure will never be more intense than on this stage.

Final Analysis UNC is a supreme offensive team and when the Tar Heels play up to their capability, they are near impossible to defend. The team came into this year with national championship hopes and with Lawson, Hansbrough and Ellington clicking on all cylinders, they could fulfill that dream with two more wins.

Villanova Wildcats Road To Detroit: Region: East (3 seed) Wins Over: American (80-67), UCLA (89-69), Duke (77-54) and Pittsburgh (78-76) Average Margin of Victory: 14.5 points

Strengths Villanova has played very aggressive, effective defense this tournament, allowing only 66.5 points per game while holding Duke to only 54 points in the Sweet Sixteen. The Wildcats can take teams out of their offensive rhythm and that is a good complement for their balanced scoring attack.

Weaknesses Despite being able to out-rebound every opponent in the tournament, Villanova is not a tall team. Of its key contributors, only Shane Clark and Dante Cunningham are taller than six-foot-seven. Antonia Pena, at 6-foot-8, has played 24 minutes total in the tournament.

Star Performer One of the most improved players in the nation, Dante Cunningham has evolved into a star. The 6-foot-8 senior is averaging 17.8 points and 8.3 rebounds in the tournament and his size will be crucial for the Wildcats.

X-Factor Shane Clark and his 6-foot-7 frame will be vital for Villanova as it tries to slow down UNC's talented frontcourt. He had 11 points and four rebounds against Pittsburgh and he is going to need to be active on the boards and out of foul trouble against North Carolina.

Interesting Subplot In 1985 Villanova won the national championship against Georgetown as an eight seed in a year where three Big East teams went to the Final Four. This year, with two Big East teams in the Final Four, the Wildcats are once again the lowest seed in the Final Four and are looking for history to repeat itself.

Final Analysis Villanova appears to be improving with every game and after blowout wins against UCLA and Duke and an impressive upset of top-seeded Pittsburgh, this Wildcat team has shown that it's an elite caliber team - and the best may be yet to come.