Men's NCAA Tournament Final Four Game Breakdowns
Two number four seeds will meet up with each other in the Final Four in Atlanta, Georgia. Their journeys through the NCAA Tournament have been filled with ups and downs but they indeed seem like the two best teams from the South and East regions respectively.
Michigan’s trip to the Final Four came oh so close to not happening a round prior. But their squeak-out win over top seeded Kansas was not the beginning. They started with a thrashing of Nate Wolters and South Dakota State. Many thought the Jackrabbits may have had the ability to pull an upset with a prolific scorer like Wolters but Michigan stomped out those beliefs. Next came the win over VCU, which if not for their Elite Eight results, would have been the most impressive victory in the entire South regional. The Wolverine guards handled VCU’s pressure from the opening tip and Mitch McGary was unstoppable inside. The same could not be said for Michigan’s Sweet Sixteen match against Kansas. Instead it was the Jayhawks who came out flying. Kansas built up a huge lead that held all the way to the final TV timeouts of the second half. Star guard Trey Burke managed zilch in the first half but recorded 23 monster points in the second half and overtime to carry Michigan, along with another huge game for McGary, through to the Elite Eight. It was there that Michigan throttled one of the best defensive teams in the country from the first whistle through the last. Opening up a 13-0 lead before Florida Coach Billy Donovan even had time to settle into his chair, Michigan never looked back.
Syracuse had an easier time of things overall on their way to the Final Four simply because they never had to mount a comeback like Michigan needed against Kansas. Instead, the Orange has made relatively easy work of every opponent thrown at them in the Big Dance. Montana was nothing more than a parked car on Syracuse’s drive to Atlanta. In round three, California also posed little threat for most of the game. They managed to make things interesting near the end but the Orange held on. A similar storyline occurred in the Sweet Sixteen where Cuse handled Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo and number one Indiana. The game was not nearly as close as the 11 point margin would indicate. In the Elite Eight, Syracuse seemed to correct their mistakes from the previous two games, allowing Marquette to mount no such late-game comeback. From March 21 to now, Syracuse has been one of the most impressive teams in this tournament.
Which brings us to the Final Four matchup of Michigan versus Syracuse. Who has the upper hand will most certainly be determined by how Michigan deals with the vaunted Syracuse zone. To beat a long, athletic zone like the Orange displays, teams have to be quick and accurate with their passes. It helps to have a tremendous point guard, which the Wolverines happen to have. It also helps to have great three point shooters. Michigan probably has a better collection of outside shooters than anyone Syracuse has faced thus far. Lastly, it is key to have a rebounder who can create mismatches since it is harder to box out on defense while playing a zone as opposed to man-to-man. Michigan can also claim this, as Mitch McGary has turned himself into a real force this March.
So if Michigan has all the answers to the 2-3 zone, what chance does Syracuse have? Well, Indiana seemingly had many of those same answers prior to their game against Cuse and they simply got manhandled. It still comes down to executing and making smart passes against the length at the top of that defense. Trey Burke needs to resist the urge to over-dribble and Michigan cannot fall into the mindset that any three pointer is worth taking just because they are facing a zone defense. Marquette fell into this trap as they took 24 long range attempts, even though that is not something they do well (they made only three).
On offense, Syracuse will also have some advantages. Their point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, is coming off one of his best games and has a good half foot height advantage over his counterpart on the other team. Everyone on Syracuse has size so how Michigan chooses to defend them will be key. The emergence of Baye Keita should also be worrisome for the Wolverines and John Beilein. In the tournament, Keita’s playing time has shot up as Rakeem Christmas’ has decreased since Keita has played like the better defender and rebounder. If he plays his matchup against Mitch McGary to anything resembling a toss-up, Michigan is in trouble.
Of course, McGary has outplayed nearly every big man he has come across in these playoffs. It should happen again; the experience and play-making of Burke against the zone all combined with the fact that Syracuse hasn’t really been challenged yet and may not know how to respond to a battle gives the edge to the Wolverines, especially if they come out shooting hot.
When the number one overall seed in the NCAA Tournament reaches the Final Four, it gives people a sense of satisfaction, that something makes sense in this March madness. When their opponent in Atlanta is a nine seed from the Missouri Valley Conference…things begin to fall apart. But this isn’t to say the Wichita State Shockers are not deserving of their trip to college basketball’s ultimate locale. It’s just a bit unsettling is all.
Wichita State was certainly the better team in their round two handling of the Pitt Panthers. They also deservedly took down the West region’s one seed, Gonzaga, by shooting the heck out of the ball (50% from the floor and 50% from behind the arc on 28 attempts!). La Salle found a similar fate but in a decidedly different fashion. There, the Shockers out-muscled and out-rebounded the Explorers to the tune of a 44 to 23 rebounding edge. In the Elite Eight, where many thought WSU would finally meet their end, they outplayed Ohio State. While a huge early lead dwindled, Wichita State was able to hold off any late rally and secured the victory. Cleanthony Early and Malcolm Armstead shared the scoring load with a number of other players but they really won on the defensive end. Wichita State made every OSU three point attempt difficult unless it was coming out of the hands of Aaron Craft. They let the distance-averse Craft shoot all he wanted and made it a chore for anyone else to do so. Craft took 12 field goal attempts and only converted two of them. Deshaun Thomas and LaQuinton Ross went a combined 12 for 32 to make up nearly all of the Buckeyes’ offense.
In less of a surprise, the one seeded Louisville Cardinals are headed to the Final Four as well. Their takedown of the Duke Blue Devils was preceded by a pretty impressive run. Louisville didn’t really play a single close game in this tournament. They beat North Carolina A&T by 31 points; they beat Colorado State by 26 points; they beat Oregon by eight in what turned into a closer game late; and finally, they took down Duke by a remarkable margin of 22. Really the Cardinals haven’t played a close game since their March 2 win at Syracuse. And they haven’t lost a ballgame since way back on February 9. For those who do not remember, that loss came at Notre Dame…after five overtime periods. Louisville has been rolling and it will be up to the Shockers to stop them.
Louisville’s two main strengths are their full court press and the attack ability of their two starting guards. The full court press forces opponents into bad decisions and, ultimately, turnovers. Louisville has forced an average of 17 turnovers per game during the NCAA Tournament. Wichita State should be able to counteract this with their four-guard alignment that they used with success against Ohio State when the Buckeyes forced pressure to get back in the game. Taking care of the basketball by guards Fred Van Vleet and Malcolm Armstead will be paramount to Wichita State staying in this contest.
The other Louisville strength is the driving ability of their guards, Russ Smith and Peyton Siva. The Shockers did a tremendous job against OSU of giving them offense they did not want. This will be more difficult against the Cardinals. While playing great team defense and forcing an opponent into contested outside shots is the goal, Louisville does fine even when they aren’t shooting well. Against Duke, the Cardinals made just 2 of their 13 three point attempts. They even shot below 70% from the foul line and still blew out Duke. It is just too hard to keep both Smith and Siva out of the paint. They are quicker and faster with the basketball than any defender is without it. And once they get in the lane, forget about it. There was a stretch early in the second half against the Blue Devils where it seemed that every shot Louisville got was a layup. One by Smith was followed by a couple of Siva’s, then Siva dished off for Gorgui Dieng to hit a few layups of his own.
That’s the problem staring the Shockers in the face. They may need to play flawlessly to win this ballgame. Outshooting and outrebounding Louisville will be no guarantee of victory. They will also need to limit turnovers, keep ball handlers out of the paint and win at the free throw line. Even when they aren’t hitting outside shots, there is just too much Louisville does well for them to lose unless their opponent plays a seamless game. Is Wichita State capable of that type of performance? Sure. Is it likely? No, but neither was the 9 seeded Shockers making the Final Four in the first place.