Friday, April 5, 2013

And Then There Were Four

The chaos known as the NCAA tournament began with sixty-five teams vying for their shot at immortality. Visions and goals were different for each team. Whether it was trying to win a national championship, or a Cinderella making an unbelievable run, teams set out to make the most of playing on the national stage. At first there were so many possibilities but now it has come down to this years Final Four: Louisville, Wichita State, Michigan and Syracuse. I'll make my picks and analyze each match-up, as well as honor the number "4"with a unique series of awards.

Winners in bold as usual.

(9) Wichita St.  61  @ (1) Louisville 77

It's hard enough to get the Final Four one hundred percent correct (thanks, Shockers) as at least one  number one seed bows out early every year. Yes I am looking at you, Mark Few and Gonzaga.

This year only one top seed  still stands as one of the last four teams: Louisville. Rick Pitino knows what he's doing when he recruits high-character players and fits them into his ultra-successful system. This is a team that made the Final Four as a plucky underdog in 2012, and in one year they have transformed into the perennial favorite ever since the latter part of the regular season. That previous year's experience combined with a legendary coach, veteran leadership and a gritty will to win  is what has made them such a hot and trendy team to pick as an eventual champion.

They are led by the guard tandem of senior Peyton Siva and junior Russ Smith. We already knew how good Siva was his whole career, but this tournament could easily be renamed "The Russ Smith Show". The junior shooting guard broke out, averaging 25 points per game with all four of his performances reaching 23 points or more. He is shooting an astounding 84% from the charity stripe, so don't bother fouling him, either.

Louisville has been rolling in the tournament, averaging 80 points per game. This is a boost from the regular season where they averaged 74 points per game. Defensively they have been no slouch, either. They have allowed 59 points per game, second only to Syracuse.

Against Duke, the game was 21-20 when guard Kevin Ware suffered a devastating break of his leg after landing awkwardly. Most teams might fold under such a ghastly sight, but not this Pitino-led Louisville team. They were up 35-32 at the half and then tied at 42-42 in the second half. They emotionally charged Cards went on a 17-2 tear and effectively put a fork in the Blue Devils, beating them by 22 points.

On the flip side we have the Wichita State Shockers who are essentially 2013's George Mason, albeit two seeds higher. They come in to Saturday's game averaging a respectable 72.8 points per game in the tourney and allow 62.8. I doubt their defense will slow down the freight train known as the Cardinals offense. If they want to keep up offensively with the Cardinals, guard Malcolm Armstead is going to have to really improve on his shooting. Through four games he has made 21 of 59 attempts which amounts to a dismal 35% from the field. His efficiency comes from the free throw line where he's shot 90%.

The Shockers surprised the nation on route to an upset of the high-powered Gonzaga Bulldogs and then were in firm control of a potent Ohio State offense led by Aaron Craft which really surprised me. While their defense has definitely shown up this March, I think the Cardinals will overload it and outrun Wichita State on their way to the championship game in Atlanta.

One last thing....I propose a rule that no one can use "shock" in any fashion to describe the run of Wichita State. It's called synonyms people: surprise, upset, jolt, awe, jar, stupify, astonish. See? Not hard.

(4) Michigan 54 @ (4) Syracuse 66

The story of this game will be Michigan's lights out offense versus Syracuse's suffocating defense. Both teams had their doubters and not many people had either pegged to win their regions.

Michigan was powered by guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. in the regular season, but they have gotten help from their teammates as well during their most recent run.  The duo account for less than half of their team's offense (36 %) in March. Burke shot 46% on the season but ever since the tournament began, he has yet to crack 40% from the field. His play can be electric but erratic.

Within the last four games help has come in the form of guard Mitch McGary. The 6'10 forward has averaged 17.5 points in March, up from 7.4 in the regular season. His minutes have increased 37% from 19 to 29.8 minutes per game. That goes to show if given the chance, McGary will shine.

6'6 guard Nik Stauskas will try and give the Orange defense all they can handle with his premiere three-point shooting (44%), but Syracuse has shown they can step out on the deep ball.

Quick- what team scored the biggest blow-out in tournament history (47 points) during the shot clock era? If you guessed the Syracuse Orange, you are right. You know, the team who is last in scoring out of the four remaining teams (66 points per game).

The Syracuse team that had a 4-7 stretch from February to March has been replaced by a hungrier, more aggressive one that has stifled offenses. The Orange should be renamed the Pillows for how well they smother opposing offenses. Their 2-3 zone is so unique and effective, especially for a Big 10 team like Michigan that has not played against that defensive style often. Big East teams would likely have the best success against the 'Cuse, but even Marquette looked like middle-school players last weekend. They only give up 50 points per game during their run to Atlanta and allow teams to shoot a staggeringly low fifteen percent from beyond the arc. No, not fifty.....FIFTEEN PERCENT. Their defense gives offenses fits, pressuring the ball at all times and forcing bad decisions which lead into turnovers and fast break points in transition.

Another factor that favors The Boeheim Bunch is their size and length. I feel like I have repeated that over and over the last few weeks....well, because I have. CJ Fair and James Southerland are both 6'8 while Baye Keita patrols the middle at 6'10. He'll have to deal with McGary in the middle, an intriguing match-up. Burke might as well be buying Michael Carter-Williams Subway. He is at a severe disadvantage, giving up six inches to the Orange point guard. If Beilein is smart, he'll put the 6'6 Hardaway on Carter-Williams and have Burke guard 6'4 Brandon Triche. But hey, what do I know?

The smart thing for Beilein and company to do is learn from Indiana's mistakes and plan for  Syracuse accordingly. I highly doubt the Michigan offense will come anywhere close to the 79 points per game they have been putting up so far in four games. They won't get as many good looks against an active defense that jumps in front of picks and stays glued to their man. Southerland has been  a rock for Syracuse and Carter-Williams will look to keep his hot streak up as well. The 2-3 zone will due what is designed to do: force turnovers, low field goal percentages and generally frustrate the Wolverine leading to Boeheim's second championship visit in a decade.

National Championship: (4) Syracuse 68 vs. (1) Louisville 77

As much as I'd love to sit here as a fan of the Orange and tell you they will crush the Cardinals and are like, totally THE BEST EVER...I tend to be a realist about things.

The match-up certainly intrigues me as it's this season's most consistent, dangerous offense (Louisville) versus the most effective, mind-numbingly agitating defense (Syracuse). It's two teams that love to get out and run the floor for easy lay-ups off turnovers. It'd be a fitting way to end the season and the Big East Conference.

Two coaching behemoths in Pitino and Boeheim one more time for all the marbles. This would be a rematch of the Big East Tournament final which saw the Cards down 13 at the half and storm back in the second half, outscoring 'Cuse 56-26. You never want to look more than one game ahead as a team, but Syracuse has to have had the thought planted in their minds on revenge. The way the Cards have remained so composed under the adversity they have faced this season, I would favor them in the title game.

And finally, I shall honor the number 4.

Best Players Remaining
1. Russ Smith - An NBA-ready junior, although undersized, plays way bigger than his 6'1 height.
2. Trey Burke - Trigger happy, but when he's hot he can be unstoppable.
3. Peyton Siva - A true veteran floor leader who kept his team together against Duke.
4. Michael Carter-Williams - Has the size, handles, crafty defense and diverse offensive game that makes guarding him a nightmare.

1. James Southerland - Three point range is uncanny. His height allows for good looks against the best defenders.
2. Tim Hardaway, Jr. - Will need  better shot selection like his partner, Burke, but will definitely have an effect on the outcome of the game.
3. CJ Fair - Sweetest shooting form of any player in the tournament and has all the tools.
4. Mitch McGary - Has stepped up when it matters and will make up for the poor shooting of Burke.

Coaches (in order of most entertaining to least)
1. Jim Boeheim - His interaction with refs is the theater inside the game. I love his sarcasm.
2. Rick Pitino - Always seems in control (aside from the Ware situation). Truly a legend.
3. Gregg "I'm Just Happy To Be Here" Marshall - Ten bucks says the usher checks to see if he has a ticket stub, to which he'd reply, "I'm the head coach."
5. John Beilein - Get some charisma, dude.

Toughest Players in Atlanta
1. Kevin Ware
2. Kevin Ware
3. Kevin Ware
4. Kevin Ware

He may not be playing, but God Bless the kid for his grittiness through tough times. Was it Pitino who rallied the team and reassured all of them it would be ok? No, it was the kid with the bone six inches out of his leg that said, "Just win the game, don't worry about me." Absolutely amazing.

All-Time Best College Player To Call a Time-Out That His Team Didn't Have In A National Title Game
#4 Chris Webber

The end of the season is almost here and each school looking to win the title. Whether it's a long shot (Wichita State) or an assumed contender (Louisville), all four teams have proven themselves to get to this point and look to cement their season in history as this year's champion. As former NFL player Bart Scott once said, "Can't wait."

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Contact Sean on Twitter @SeanNeutron.

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