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Final Four Fodder

April 4, 2013

Another great NCAA Basketball Tournament has left us with an intriguing Final Four. Michigan, Wichita State, Louisville, and Syracuse survived and are in Atlanta this weekend for the Final Four.

Everyone thought the Big Ten would send at least one team to the Final Four. They just did not think it would be Michigan. Everyone thought a team from Kansas would make it. But they thought it would be Kansas instead of Wichita State. Everyone thought Louisville would make it. And the lone remaining number-one seed did. Few thought Syracuse would make it. The Orange had a stretch of games a month or so ago when they struggled to beat anyone.

I still like Louisville though you never know what is going to happen when the Final Four lights come on.

Louisville displayed its toughness when it recovered following Kevin Ware’s leg injury in the first half of Sunday’s win over Duke. Toughness and resiliency that has led to 14 straight victories. The Cards have not loss since early February and they have been doing it with a swarming defense that creates turnovers that lead to easy buckets offensively. Just ask Duke how Louisville wears teams down. The Cardinals outscored the Blue Devils by 22 points in the final 15:44 of their Elite Eight win on Sunday.

Syracuse is the other Big East team in the Finals. The Orange also feature an elite defense but it is quite different then Louisville’s D. Syracuse relies on a zone defense that drives opposing coaches and players crazy. All four of the Orange’s NCAA tournament opponents have shot below 28 percent outside the paint. That stat is important as opponents struggle to get the ball inside against the zone. Syracuse does struggle to score itself but have found ways to score enough thus far in March.

Michigan matches up with Syracuse in a semifinal matchup. The Wolverines just may have some answers for the Orange’s zone. Michigan is led by point guard Trey Burke who is averaging 19 points and seven assists a contest. He is a threat on so many levels. He can drive and score. He can hit shots from the perimeter. He orchestrates everything for the Wolverines and it will be interesting to see if he can solve the Syracuse zone defense. Burke has a young but talented supporting cast featuring Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III, and Mitch McGary. Michigan’s offense is clicking as it has scored 79 points in its last two games against programs (Florida and Kansas) that were ranked in the top six defensive efficiency ratings.

Wichita State does not like being called the Cinderella team this year. Like Louisville and Syracuse, the Shockers rely heavily on their defense.They are a veteran squad and are tuned in to coach Greg Marshall. Remember Marshall. The same Greg Marshall who often took nearby Winthrop University to the tourney. This is a dangerous crew that is capable of outplaying the other three teams in Atlanta. Just ask Ohio State.

Wichita State has had the most impressive journey to the Final Four. The ninth seed Shockers lived up to their name by beating Pitt, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State to reach the Final Four. WSU is the only remaining participant that’s knocked off a 1-seed (Gonzaga) and a 2-seed (Ohio State). Michigan knocked off a one seed in Kansas and a three seed in Florida. Syracuse topped a one seed in Indiana while Louisville came through the toughest regional (Midwest) to advance to Atlanta. The Cards toughest draw was number-two seed Duke.

History tells us that Louisville has the edge. This is the 10th Final Four appearance for the Cardinals. It’s their third trip under Rick Pitino. They reached the Final Four last season, losing to rival and eventual champion Kentucky. The Cards are seeking their first national championship game appearance since 1986, the last time they won a championship. Michigan has not been to the Final Four since the Fab Five journeyed there in 1992 and ‘93. They won the national crown in 1989. Wichita State reached the Elite Eight for the first time since 1981 this year. They haven’t been to the Final Four since 1965 and have never won the national championship. Syracuse, under coach Jim Boeheim, won the program’s only national title in 2003. Syracuse has played in three national title games since 1987.

I like Michigan over Syracuse on Saturday. Talented and quick point guards give Syracuse’s zone defense trouble and Burke is just that. The Wolverines are peaking at the right time primarily due to the insertion of McGary into the starting lineup. McGary has taken well to the move as he is averaging over 18 points and 12 rebounds a game in the tourney.

Louisville and Wichta State are very similar. It is just that the Cards have better players at every position. Louisville appears to be rallying even more for the injured Kevin Ware who is from Atlanta. Rick Pitino will be a legend even if he doesn’t win another national title ring. But he’s in a great position to earn his second crown. And it would be nostalgic if he defeated Syracuse in the championship game, the same program and coach that his 1995-96 Kentucky team defeated when he won his first and only national title. If the Shockers pull off another shocker, they will be the first-ever No. 9 seed or lower to reach the national title game.

As I have spoken of often in these pages, do not be shocked if there are a few surprises left in this tourney. There have been so many all year in college basketball. It was often the kiss of death to rise to the top of the weekly poll. As soon as a new team rose to the top, they were beaten. Louisville hopes the surprises are over while Michigan and Syracuse, both No. 4 seeds, hope to get a shot at the Cards or upstart Wichita State. By the way, this year marks the first time in tourney history that two number four seeds made it to the Final Four.

Let’s check out my predictions from last week’s column. I had Michigan reaching the Final Four but losing to Miami who was eliminated in the Sweet 16. I did not like Syracuse to advance. In fact, I had them losing in the Sweet 16 to Indiana. As it turns out, the Orange’s zone defense completely took the Hoosiers out of their game. I had Ohio State coming out of the West but Wichita State made sure that did not occur. And I did have Louisville coming out of the Midwest though I had them beating Michigan State to do so. Duke surprised me by taking care of the Spartans.

In all, I feel pretty good about having two Final Four teams remaining and do have a shot at winning my pool. Hopefully, you do, too. Enjoy the games.

 


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