Whether Oklahoma wins or not today when they face North Carolina in the Elite Eight, Sooners super soph Blake Griffin is still going to be picked No. 1 in the NBA draft this summer. Still, adding an NCAA Final Four to his resume sure could not hurt. Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and the top-seeded Tar Heels stand in Griffin's way down South in Memphis, with CBS set to air this Elite Eight matchup at 5:00 p.m. (ET) from the FedEx Forum.
No. 1 North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough has come a long way during his college career. If he wants to go any further, he’ll have to go through Blake Griffin and No. 2 Oklahoma in the South Regional Final on Sunday afternoon in Memphis.
That’s no easy task considering Griffin is set to dethrone Hansbrough as National Player of the Year. Hansbrough is certainly a load in the post for North Carolina (31-4, 14-19 ATS), but Griffin is downright dominant, evidenced by his averages of 30.3 points and 14.7 rebounds per game in the Big Dance for Oklahoma (30-5, 16-13-1 ATS).
The good news for the ACC’s all-time leading scorer is he isn’t alone. The Tar Heels have the stronger supporting cast around their featured big man, especially with the way Ty Lawson has returned from the ominous toe injury that threatened to sideline the speedster for the entire NCAA Tournament. I’m thinking if Hansbrough can play Griffin to a draw, UNC can book its ticket to Ford Field.
Oddsmakers have recognized the strength of the Heels’ array of talent, opening the pre-Tournament favorites as 6.5-point chalk against the Sooners. Action on the spread was limited into early Saturday morning, although my inclination is public money will be on North Carolina, with sharps siding with Oklahoma.
Who could blame the wise guys for handicapping the Sooners to stay within a few buckets of the Tar Heels? Griffin is a beast, and if Tony Crocker has half the game he did in Oklahoma’s 84-71 win over No. 3 Syracuse in the South Regional semifinals on Friday, the Sooners might win this tilt outright.
Crocker went for a career-high 28 points on 6-of-11 from three-point range against the Orange, which complemented Griffin’s 30 points and 14 rebounds on the night. Oklahoma covered easily as 1-point faves in the win, which represented the Sooners’ third straight payday in the Dance.
The key is what Crocker can do for Oklahoma’s offense when he’s going well, and specifically how he can open up the floor for Griffin. If Crocker is knocking down his shots, it’ll make Roy Williams think twice about double-teaming Griffin, or at the very least, force North Carolina to pick its poison. Crocker’s shooting also opens up opportunities to penetrate for Austin Johnson and Willie Warren, who was pedestrian on Friday night. Sooners backers had better hope Warren isn’t running out of gas like many freshmen do at this stage of the season.
The Tar Heels drilled No. 4 Gonzaga 98-77 in the late game on Friday, rolling to the bank as 7.5-point faves. Hansbrough was his usual self, finishing with 24 points and 10 boards, but once again the story was the play of Lawson. If the jammed right big toe that saw him miss the Tourney opener is still bothering him, it isn’t reflected in his impact on the game. Lawson had 19 points – 17 in the first half – and nine assists against the Bulldogs, which came after his 23-point, six-dime performance in UNC’s 84-70 victory over No. 8 LSU (+12.5) in the second round last weekend.
Another major positive for Heels bettors was the game from Danny Green, who came out of his slump to go for 13 points and seven assists on 5-of-11 from the floor on Friday night. Green gives North Carolina another dimension when he’s draining buckets – and he’ll be open for a good portion of the contest on Sunday. Oklahoma just doesn’t have enough horses to keep Hansbrough, Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Green in check simultaneously.
The total had not yet been released as of press time, but I could see this one playing over the listed number. The Sooners are 13-5-1 O/U in their last 19 non-conference matchups, and both teams have pushed the pace through their first three games of the Dance. The Tar Heels have numerous incentives to play run-and-gun; not only has UNC cashed in each game of the Tourney playing uptempo basketball, but forcing the game into transition helps keep Griffin off the block.
Add to that Lawson reported tightness in his banged-up toe “only after we had to slow the game down,” (against Gonzaga), and you can rest assured the Heels will push the ball against the Sooners.