Nearly three weeks and 64 NCAA tournament games later, the Final Four is finally upon us.
We’ve watched three No. 1 seeds go down and buzzer-beaters by the likes of Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross and Trey Burke, although there were also 38 games decided by double digits. We’ve seen two coaches get fired after taking their teams to the NCAA tournament and then watched one of those schools (UCLA) hire a coach who was upset by Harvard in the first round this year (former New Mexico coach Steve Alford).
Who could forget No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast dunking its way to the round of 16 or the angst it caused on the Hilltop after Georgetown Coach John Thompson III suffered another early exit from March Madness? La Salle and Wichita State also emerged as Cinderellas, and the Shockers could pull off their biggest upset yet at the Georgia Dome on Saturday. And of course, there was the horrific open fracture suffered by Louisville’s Kevin Ware last weekend, an injury that might go down as the most gruesome ever to occur in a basketball game.
All of that has set the stage for tonight, when the 2013 Final Four tips off in Atlanta. Here’s a preview of what could decide each matchup
No. 9 seed Wichita State vs. No. 1 seed Louisville, 6:09 (CBS)
How they got here
Louisville took home the Big East tournament title in New York and then made quick work of No. 16 seed North Carolina A&T and No. 8 seed Colorado State, winning by a combined 57 points to advance to the round of 16. The Cardinals then beat No. 12 seed Oregon and pulled away from No. 2 seed Duke last weekend in the Midwest Region final to earn a second-straight berth into the Final Four.
After losing to Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament finals, Wichita State scored a decisive 73-55 victory over No. 8 seed Pittsburgh to begin the NCAA tournament. The Shockers followed that up by upsetting No. 1 seed Gonzaga to advance to the round of 16. Wichita State then dispatched of No. 13 seed La Salle before holding on late to beat No. 2 seed Ohio State in the West Region final and move on to the school’s first Final Four since 1965.
Players to Watch
Louisville’s Russ Smith is in line to earn the NCAA tournament’s most outstanding player award this weekend after overwhelming teams the past two weekends. Smith is averaging 26 points per game during the tournament while spearheading the Cardinals’ pressure defense.
Wichita State’s Malcolm Armstead, the man who likely will have to contain Smith and backcourt mate Peyton Siva on the defensive end, could hold the key to another Shockers’ upset. Armstead, Wichita State’s point guard, has elevated his play during the postseason, averaging 18 points, six rebounds and 3.6 assists over the past four games.
Louisville has thrived riding Siva and Smith thus far, looking every bit like the No. 1 overall seed of this tournament. The duo has been lethal executing the pick and roll and have combined for 70 deflections to jump-start Coach Rick Pitino’s high-octane defense. But there’s little depth behind them after Ware’s injury, and neither can afford foul trouble.
Wichita State’s run to the Final Four has been highlighted by fast starts and an overpowering interior attack led by forward Carl Hall. A win against the heavily favore Cardinals, though, would be Coach Gregg Marshall’s best work yet. In their four wins thus far in the tournament, the Shockers have outscored opponents, 135-96, in the first half. They can ill-afford to reverse that trend against a Louisville squad that has jumped all over teams in recent weeks and features a deep front-court.
No. 4 seed Syracuse vs. No. 4 seed Michigan, 8:49 (CBS)
How they got here
After going 6-6 in its final 12 games before the NCAA tournament, the Wolverines had little trouble beating No. 13 seed South Dakota State and No. 5 seed Virginia Commonwealth to move on to the round of 16. Michigan needed a miraculous second-half comeback, capped off by Burke’s desperation three-pointer to force overtime, to get past No. 1 seed Kansas. The Wolverines then blew out No. 3 seed Florida in the South Region final to earn their first Final Four berth in 20 years.
Syracuse went through its own swoon near the end of the regular season before making a run to the Big East tournament final. The Orange then destroyed No. 13 seed Montana and scored a 66-60 victory over No. 12 seed California in San Jose, Calif., to earn a spot in the round of 16. At the Verizon Center last week, Syracuse earned a decisive win over No. 1 seed Indiana and followed it up with an ugly 55-39 victory against No. 3 seed Marquette in the East Region final.
Players to watch
Michigan’s Trey Burke has earned just about every national player of the year award handed out thus far, and this weekend is his chance to leave an indelible mark on what has been a spectacular sophomore campaign. The point guard could be a deciding factor in how the Wolverines fare against Syracuse’s dominant 2-3 zone, although his size (6-foot-0) could work against him facing the Orange’s big guards.
Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams has been the catalyst during the Orange’s somewhat surprising run to the Final Four. His length has proven to be an asset on both sides of the floor, and his ability to ignite Syracuse’s fast break will be crucial for a team that can struggle to score in half-court sets.
The focus in this one is how Michigan handles Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. Just four teams have shot better than 40 percent from three-point range against the Orange this season, and they lead the country in block percentage. With Burke, sharpshooters Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Nik Stauskas and multi-dimensional big men Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, the Wolverines would seem to have the offensive weapons to match. The key for the Orange’s offense could be James Southerland because he’s their only reliable outside shooter.