Final Four Preview
Another unpredictable tournament has finally weeded out all but four teams for one final weekend. The remaining competitors, Louisville, Wichita State, Michigan, and Syracuse are a mish-mash of styles that should make for another difficult-to-predict round of play.
Let’s take a look at each matchup.
(1) Louisville versus (9) Wichita State
Few outside the state of Kansas predicted the Shockers would get this far. In fact, few in the state of Kansas even gave them a chance. This is a team that Kansas and Kansas State no longer play—mainly due to the Shockers annually expected low RPI. The team had just a 2–2 record against tournament teams heading into the big dance. But here they are using the element of surprise and some intense defense to get to the promised land.
Wichita State has held each of its four tournament opponents (including top-ranked Gonzaga) to less than 36 percent shooting en route to winning the West region. Fortunately, it’ll still have the element of surprise here to help—and it’ll need it against a dangerous Louisville team.
The Cardinals, which have lost once since late-January (a six-overtime thriller against Notre Dame) come at teams with speed, power, and pressure—lots of pressure—to hamper their opponents. In the regional finals against Duke, Louisville had 10 steals and 9 blocked shots—including 4 by center Gorgui Dieng, who averages 2.5 per game (third best in the Big East). Because of Dieng’s inside presence, the guards are free to turn up the perimeter pressure with little fear of anyone successfully getting past their shot-blocking teammate.
On offense, the speed of starting guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith is almost too much for teams to take. Time and time again the duo was able to drive the lane against Duke and either get a layup or draw the defense in thus freeing up shooters for wide open looks beyond the 3-point line. To wit, the Cardinals have shot better than 50 percent in all four tournament games as Rick Pitino has them playing in high gear at just the right time of year.
Wichita State certainly wasn’t favored against Gonzaga, Ohio State, or even Pittsburgh thus far, yet the Shockers prevailed each time. They certainly aren’t favored here against a talented team playing its best basketball of the year.
Prediction: Louisville 78, Wichita State 66
(4) Syracuse versus (4) Michigan
The term parity was used a fair amount this season to describe the number of great, yet not overwhelmingly dominant teams, that looked like contenders for the title. This here is a matchup of two of those thought-to-be-contenders, both of which slid late in the season into a deceivingly low fourth-seed slot.
The Orange were in the top 10 all season long until losing four of their final five regular season games. Syracuse, which has so often been the case in recent history, was unpredictable come tournament time. The ’Cuse, which had been bounced by a lower seeded team in six of its last seven tournament appearances, though, has been playing some worry-free basketball ever since Louisville came back and defeated them for the Big East tournament title in early March.
With the burden of a high ranking and a high seed (and thus expectations) off its shoulders the Orange drubbed Montana (by 47 points) in the opener before squeezing past Cal 66–60 to get to the Sweet 16 to face everyone’s tournament favorite: Indiana.
But the Hoosiers, just like Syracuse’s other three opponents in the tournament, failed to hit even 40 percent of the shots against coach Jim Boeheim’s patented zone defense and were really never in the game. Ditto for the Marquette game as the Golden Eagles were just 12 for 53 from the floor.
The zone is going to have to be in full effect to stop Michigan Saturday though. The Wolverines have been rolling ever since ending Kansas’s season with a shocking 33–17 run over the final 11.5 minutes in the regional semifinals to win in overtime. The game, considered one of the best in the tournament, featured All-American guard Trey Burke hitting several 25-foot 3-pointers to dwindle the Kansas lead, and a 30-foot dagger to send it to overtime.
Two days later, the fourth-seeded Wolverines, which were ranked No. 1 for a week in January before a late-season swoon, jumped all over Florida from the get-go to romp their way to the Final Four.
Making the team all the more difficult to defend has been the play of freshman power forward Mitch McGary. The highly recruited McGary has a pair of double-doubles in the tournament, including a 25-point, 14 rebound effort against Kansas and its shot-blocking center Jeff Withey.
Rebounding is one of the weaknesses of Syracuse’s zone defense and also, the Wolverines have the best point guard in the nation in Trey Burke.
Prediction: Michigan 82, Syracuse 73.