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Kansas-Memphis will be a sprint to the finish

The outstanding and often electrifying play of the Memphis and Kansas back courts helped turn both national semifinals into routs, and whichever set of guards can take control Monday night could determine which school wins the national championship.
Image: Kansas Jayhawks Rush dribbles
Brandon Rush leads Kansas in scoring.Jeff Haynes / Reuters file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Before Chris Douglas-Roberts chose Memphis, the guard studied different styles of play and knew that watching half-court sets and methodical offenses made him fall asleep. Mario Chalmers said he had similar experiences, which is why he chose the "high-flying, full-court" offensive system Kansas employs.

Neither philosophy is devoid of structure, but both accentuate unique skill sets of athletic and fast guards and allow more freedom than many schools. The outstanding and often electrifying play of the Memphis and Kansas back courts helped turn both national semifinals into routs, and whichever set of guards can take control Monday night could determine which school wins the national championship.

"It is a mirror image," Douglas-Roberts said of both schools. "They play a similar style to us and like to dribble-drive. Their athleticism is equal. I can see why their coach decided to play that way, because you can't really stop it."

During stretches throughout the NCAA tournament, and particularly Saturday, both back courts have looked unstoppable. Kansas guard Brandon Rush scored as many points (12) as North Carolina did in Saturday's opening 14-minute stretch during which the Jayhawks outscored the Tar Heels, 40-12. In that span, Memphis assistant Derek Kellogg said, Kansas played as well as any team has over the past five years.

Memphis relentlessly accelerated tempo Saturday against UCLA, nearly scoring as many points in the first nine minutes (24) as the Bruins allowed in their first-round victory against Mississippi Valley State (29). Equally impressive was the halftime score of Memphis's region semifinal victory against Michigan State: 50-20.

"You just don't do that to Michigan State, especially when they had a week to prepare," Kansas Coach Bill Self said. "From games one through five, Memphis has been the most impressive team in the tournament."

A prime reason has been the play of freshman point guard Derrick Rose, who has drawn comparisons to Jason Kidd. Kellogg recalled first watching Rose in a "back gym" when Rose was 13. Rose, who in high school played on the same summer league team as Indiana freshman Eric Gordon, was always an impressive floor leader, but he surprised the Memphis coaching staff with an extra gear that, Kellogg said, enables him to race up court like a Ferrari.

Studying tape of Memphis, Self watched Rose grab a rebound, race the length of the court with four dribbles, score a layup and "he was never at full speed." Over the past three games, Rose has outplayed three of the nation's best guards in Michigan State's Drew Neitzel, Texas's D.J. Augustin and UCLA's Darren Collison. Rose did not attend Sunday's media sessions because of an upset stomach, school officials said, but he will play in Monday's title game.

UCLA also had no answer for the ambidextrous Douglas-Roberts, who scored a game-high 28 points. Memphis Coach John Calipari feels his dribble-drive motion offense -- what he calls "Princeton on steroids" -- enables guards to feel "unleashed. Every one feels they have the ability to take their guy to the basket."

Douglas-Roberts, a native of Detroit, feels playing at a traditional Big Ten school would have stifled his game and restricted his ability to penetrate and play off instincts. Some of the Memphis offense is scripted; some of it is free-flowing; but it always allows guards to take advantage of one-on-one matchups and attack the basket.

"If you can't play one-on-one in this offense, it will exploit you," Douglas-Roberts said. "I have never lost a one-on-one game in my life."

Self said Memphis runs its offense a little differently than Kansas, but the philosophy is the same: Get the ball into the lane either by dribbling or passing. Kansas, which embraces an end-to-end frenetic style, does not play undisciplined. The Jayhawks rank third nationally in field goal percentage and assists.

They have no singular star, but Rush said he has finally started listening to coaches who have urged him to be more assertive offensively. Rush scored 25 points Saturday, which was just his third game this season in which he had at least 20 points.

Rush tore knee ligaments last spring, which forced him to pull out of the NBA draft and go back to Kansas. While rehabbing, Rush relied more on fundamentals and technique until his athleticism and explosiveness returned. Now he is sound in both areas.

"When he is aggressive and playing well," Self said, "we become a totally different team because he can stretch it from anywhere and then he's getting to where he can put the ball down and get to the rim. His play has evolved this year in large part due to health, because he has gone from being 80 percent, to 90 percent, to 95, and now he's as close to whole as he has been."

Rush's biggest challenge Monday could come defensively because he expects to guard Douglas-Roberts. Rush saw plenty of time on Davidson's Stephen Curry in the region final, but Douglas-Roberts presents a particular challenge because he has what Rush called an unorthodox and "slippery game."

Self called Rush the team's best solid defender, but guard Russell Robinson is the team's best on-ball defender and has great instincts. Chalmers has great hands and anticipates defensively as well as anyone Self has ever coached. He has 13 steals in five NCAA tournament games and has the top two Kansas single-season steals records.

The guards in Monday's game signed with Memphis or Kansas to play a particular style. They know what type of game awaits and that it has been nearly impossible to stop either back court for 40 minutes.

"A lot of players don't want to play half court," Chalmers said. "They want to play the high-flying, full-court tempo that both teams play. It's an attractive style of play, and that's what everyone will see tonight."