The four best college basketball teams in the country will be competing in the Final Four this Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Okay, well maybe not the four best teams, but certainly the four most deserved teams will be playing in the semi-finals Saturday. Hmm, actually scratch the word “deserved.” Four college basketball teams will be playing in the Final Four this Saturday in Atlanta. There, I finally got it!
But really, Louisville Cardinals aside, who would have predicted that any of the other three teams would make the Final Four? Michigan was 5-5 coming into the tournament, and did not win the Big Ten Conference tournament. Syracuse was 5-7 coming in, and did not win the Big East Conference tournament. Wichita State was 5-5 coming in the tournament, and did not win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Yet, all three of these teams have knocked off Number 1 seeds (Indiana, Kansas, and Gonzaga, respectively) since the NCAA tournament started. So don’t be surprised if the Cardinals have their throne usurped as well.
Louisville is the favorite child of Mother March and the only team in the field who made the Final Four last season. The Cardinals will be playing on behalf of reserve guard Kevin Ware who suffered one of the most horrendous injuries in sports history last week against Duke (watch at your own discretion). While lying on the court with a broken leg and six inches of bone exposed, Ware had a message for his team: “I’m OK. Just win the game!” Even the commander, Coach Rick Patino was wiping away tears as he brought his team together for a prayer before the game continued. Down a member of the Louisville family, the Cardinals came together and made Duke look like a rec league team for the remainder of the game.
But playing under the duress of such emotions and pressure can be both good and bad in sports. Last week against Duke it was good, but in all honesty, Duke is a rather passive basketball team. Wichita State is not. They are a scrappy, blue-collar squad that thrives on beating opponents to loose balls, hard-nosed pounding and rebounding inside, and getting under the skin of the other team. None of those things bodes well for an emotionally fragile Cardinals team.
Yet, the old sports adage about the NCAA tournament being guard-driven always seems to hold true, and by far, the best backcourt left in this tournament is the Cardinal duo of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith (my vote for tournament MVP). Siva and Smith are nagging gnats defensively—annoying opponents forcing an extremely high turnover rate. Once the Louisville guards turn you over, it’s off to the races with Siva as the country’s best set-up man, Smith finishing with Allen Iverson-like acrobatics, and Behanan and Dieng eager to tip-dunk any Smith shots gone awry.
Prediction: Louisville 68, Wichita State 57
Siva and Smith will handle Wichita State’s experienced, solid point guard Malcolm Armstead with relative ease, but if Michigan passes Syracuse in their semi-final matchup, the Louisville guards may have trouble with the more athletic, stronger (but not quicker) Michigan backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Especially in the absence of back-up guard Kevin Ware who served as an even-keeled leader during times of sporadic play by Siva and Smith this season.
And on the right-hand side of our brackets…
The Syracuse/Michigan semi-final game will be closer, much closer. This game is representative of the parity that has defined college basketball all season.
Syracuse will win because…
1. Their extended 2-3 zone defense is the most problem-causing, unorthodox, most effective (?) defense in college basketball. In nine previous encounters with the Syracuse defense, Michigan coach John Beilein has yet to figure it out, and therefore has fallen short each time.
2. The last time Syracuse was in the Final Four (2003), NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony, and now Syracuse assistant coach Gerry McNamara, led the Orange to a NCAA championship.
3. Six foot six point guard Michael Carter-Williams is a match-up nightmare for the Wolverine guards, and despite a recent family tragedy (his childhood home burning to the ground) has been playing with an unfathomed focus on the court.
4. Syracuse has four players (Carter-Williams, Triche, Fair, and Southerland) that can each contribute significant spurts of offense in their own way.
Michigan will win because…
1. They are one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, and despite the length of the Orange zone, the fact remains that they give up a lot of threes.
2. The best player in college basketball wears yellow and blue. Trey Burke is a catalyst, a play-maker of professional proportion, a competitor that takes all things personally, and simply put, the most important basketball player in this tournament. Whether or not he lives up to this high praise is up to him.
3. Syracuse scored a total of 39 points against Georgetown less than a month ago in the Big East championship. Sometimes their offense flat-out sucks.
4. Michigan has five (to Syracuse’s four) players that can produce offensively in their own unique way. Four of them (Robinson, Burke, McGary, and Hardaway) are NBA players right now; the fifth, Stauskas, hit six 3-pointers against Florida last week.
Prediction: Michigan 74, Syracuse 72