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By Mike Ivcic, UltimateCapper Contributing Writer
College basketball reaches its apex this weekend, and what a journey this season has been to get to this point. In some respects, the last four teams standing represent a nice snapshot of exactly what has happened this year – a large turnover at the number one spot, “mid-majors” making noise from coast (Florida Gulf Coast) to coast (Gonzaga) and everywhere in between, and one final stand for the conference formerly known as the Big East, which stills stands out to me as the best basketball conference ever assembled. Each of these storylines has played itself out in the NCAA tournament and has left us with four schools still holding on to a chance for a national title – and left us with the unenviable task of picking a winner.
Before we get there, I want to establish a level of unbiased-ness. First, I am a Michigan fan that actually picked Michigan to reach the Final Four. But I also picked Indiana to beat the Wolverines in this very round and ultimately win the entire tournament, so clearly I’m not blinded by my rooting interest and can recognize certain matchups that are and aren’t good for the teams for which I root. Also, I don’t have a dog in the hunt, so to speak, when it comes to my bracket – despite currently leading the only pool I entered, I actually cannot win it because some crazy fool actually picked Michigan to win it all, and some other crazy fool actually picked Syracuse to win it all, and since one of them has to at least win their Final Four matchup, my only hope to stay in first would be if Louisville beat Wichita State – and I think about 300 people picked Louisville to cut down the nets, so long story short – I’m screwed. BUT… that means what you’re reading here is fair, accurate, and untainted analysis of the two games on Saturday, and really that’s what this is all about – you, the reader.
Note: Lines as of Wednesday, 12pm EST.
1) Louisville vs. 9) Wichita State
Saturday, 6:09pm, CBS
Line: Louisville by 11
The Shockers are truly trying to live up to their name and do something no team has ever done in the NCAA tournament – win it all as a 9-seed. Villanova’s championship run from the 8-seed line in 1985 currently serves as the lowest seed to ever win a national title. To do it, though, they’re going to have to beat the one team that managed all year long to live up to expectations in Louisville. After losing Kevin Ware to that devastating injury, the Cardinals were able to first steady themselves to get through the rest of the first half, then went on a second-half run that steamrolled the only team that really looked capable of handling them in the entire Midwest region. Clearly Louisville is the favorite to win it all, but as Wichita State has already shown, they don’t seem to blink when they meet the big boys, so perhaps this will actually be a close, competitive game.
For Wichita State to play Monday night, they’re going to need to handle the Louisville pressure in a way that Colorado State, Oregon, and even Duke could not. Rick Pitino’s full court press is quite possibly the best I’ve ever seen, and it can turns close games into blowouts in a hurry – just ask the Rams, who were dead even through about the first eight minutes of their matchup in their third round matchup and trailed by 14 at halftime. The worst part was Pitino saying after the game, “We can do better.” Really? Well Russ Smith and Peyton Siva have been almost scoring at will, so maybe the games against Oregon and Duke were “better.” Either way, Gregg Marshall’s group is in for some tough sledding. He played basically six players against Ohio State – four others played between 2-7 minutes – and that likely won’t work against the Louisville press. The Shockers also rank below 100 nationally in almost every major statistical category, including points per game (117th) and field goal percentage (115th) but they do excel in one area – rebounding, where they’re 27th in the country. That advantage must be magnified on Saturday so that every Louisville miss is the end of their offensive possession. That will make it harder for the Cardinals to set up their full-court press and possibly allow the Shockers some easy baskets in transition. Without those, this could turn into a fifth straight cruise control win in the final minutes for Louisville.
Pick: Louisville 74, Wichita State 65
4) Michigan vs. 4) Syracuse
Saturday, 8:49pm, CBS
Line: Michigan by 2
This is the first-ever matchup in NCAA tournament history between two 4-seeds – which sounds weird until you realize that it could only happen in a Final Four or championship game setting. While the Wolverines have gotten most of the press for their tremendous rally over Kansas and their flat-out throttling of Florida from the opening tip, it’s actually Syracuse that’s had the more impressive run. They drew what most believed to be a tough Montana team in the second round and posted the most lopsided victory by a 3-seed or lower in NCAA tournament history. They were atrocious offensively against Cal and still managed to beat one of the top four teams in the Pac-12, then smothered the team that was ranked number one for most of the season in Indiana, stopping two of the top five players in the country in the process. Then, to top it all off, they had to play a fellow Big East opponent that not only knows the Jim Boeheim matchup zone, but beat it during the regular season – and promptly held the Golden Eagles to 39 points. James Southerland and Michael Cater-Williams are NBA talents, and Syracuse has managed to accomplish the most difficult thing about playing a zone defense – rebounding, where they rank 20th in the country. It’s an impressive statistic for a team that, lest we forget, was also dominating Louisville in the Big East championship game before Southerland picked up his fourth foul with 15 minutes and change left in the second half and the Cardinals outscored the Orange by 33 from that point. Boeheim’s group could easily win this whole thing.
Except for the fact that I think Syracuse drew perhaps the worst possible opponent for them in the Final Four. Beating a zone requires an opponent to be able to shoot three-pointers very well, and I present exhibit A: Michigan. Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Spike Albrecht can all hit from outside, and even Glenn Robinson III has some range. This is a Wolverines team that ranks 20th in points per game (75.2) and ninth in field goal percentage (48.4%). Again, ninth. Yes, Syracuse rebounds exceptionally well, but Michigan misses more than only eight other teams in the country and is the best shooting team the Orange have played all season. If Syracuse does decide to extend the zone farther out than usual, as some analysts have suggested, in order to take away the open threes, that will only increase the odds of Burke penetrating and developing a high-low game with Mitch McGary. The flip-side is that John Beilein will probably have to use Hardaway to guard Carter-Williams instead of Burke because of MCW’s size and length, and Hardaway is not nearly as good of an on-ball defender. Expect some points in this one, which bodes much better for the Wolverines.
Pick: Michigan 82, Syracuse 79
We’ll be back on Monday with the National Championship Game preview, but since we at the Ultimate Capper always like to play things out through the end, based upon the two predictions above the championship game would be:
Louisville 77, Michigan 74