After 9 days of tournament action there are only six teams remaining with the hopes of being crowned national champion in eight days in Atlanta. Two of those teams, Syracuse and the surprising Wichita State, have already advanced to the Final Four with wins yesterday. Today four more teams vie for the last two spots in the national semifinals as Michigan takes on Florida in Dallas and then Louisville faces Duke in Indianapolis. I will look back at Saturday’s action and ahead to today’s action by giving you the X-factors and predictions for these two games.
Looking back at the east regional final between Syracuse and their Big East rival Marquette, one thing clearly stood out and that was the suffocating zone defense of the Orange which combined with Marquette’s inability to hit open shots resulted in a 55-39 victory for the team from upstate New York. Marquette’s 39 points ties a 60-year-old record for the fewest points in the Elite 8. Syracuse has gone through one of the most stunning turnarounds in recent memory as it was just three weeks ago that they got dominated by Georgetown losing 61-39, ironically on the same floor they won on yesterday. One of the keys to their rebirth is that they are playing better offensively then they have since December. The biggest reason the Orange are going to their first Final Four since 2003 is that zone which has held their four opponents to 29% from the field and 15% from 3.
The second game yesterday saw the Shockers of Wichita State upset second seeded Ohio State 70-66 to become the first 9 seed or Missouri Valley team to make the Final Four since 1979 when both 9 seed Penn and Larry Bird’s Indiana State made it. Gregg Marshall’s players adhered to his request to play angry, especially on the defensive end, which helped them build a 56-36 lead with 11 minutes to go. The key to this big lead was the MVC runner ups’ ability to close out on Buckeye shooters and star guard Aaron Craft when he came off screens; they held Craft to 9 points on 2-12 shooting and his team to 20% from 3. However, Thad Matta’s team made a furious comeback, aided by Shocker’s Cleanthony Early having to leave the game briefly with a leg injury, cutting the deficit to three with 2:49 to go. In the end Wichita State held on thanks in large part to two big plays by Tekele Cotton, a big 3 pushing the lead back to 6 with 2:22 to go and a key offensive rebound giving his team a chance to chew more clock and increase the lead. Wichita State advancing to their first Final Foursince 1965 should not be as big a surprise as their seed suggests, they have been a very consistent program recently and even this year were ranked as high as 15 in the AP poll two months ago.
On to today where the action kicks off with a matchup between Trey Burke and the fourth seed Michigan Wolverines and Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators, with the winner playing Syracuse on Saturday. The Gators are in their third straight Elite 8, having lost to Butler and Louisville by a combined 7 points in the past two years. Meanwhile, the last Big 10 team standing, Michigan, is in the round of 8 for the first time since Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard and the rest of the Fab Five (minus Chris Webber) led them here in 1994. The key for Michigan is if freshman forward Mitch McGary, this game’s x-factor, continue his hot streak in the tournament, including 25 points and 14 rebounds in their overtime victory over top seed Kansas on Friday. This will prevent Florida from helping on Burke and the rest of the wing players for Michigan giving them better looks. For Florida they must be able to force turnovers by a team that only averages 9 points a game, this will allow them to get easy buckets and allow their shooters to gain confidence. These are two evenly matched teams, ranked 8th and 9th in the nation in field goal percentage, and in games such as this the team with the best player usually wins. In this case, that would be Michigan’s Trey Burke who I expect to lead the Wolverines to their first Final Four since the Fab Five took the school to back to back title games twenty years ago by a score of 75-69.
The last ticket to Atlanta will be on the line in the Midwest as top overall seed Louisville will take on 2nd seeded Duke in Indianapolis. Similar to the Blue Devils’ last game against Tom Izzo and Michigan State this game features two of the best coaches in college basketball, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Louisville’s Rick Pitino. These two legends have combined for over 1600 wins, 17 final fours, and 5 national titles. In addition, this will be the first NCAA tournament meeting since the 1992 Elite 8 when Coach K’s defending national champion Blue Devils beat Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats 104-103 in overtime on Christian Laettner’s turnaround jumper at the buzzer in one of the greatest tournament games ever. Just as these coaches have a history their current squads have a history as well, Duke beat Louisville 76-71 in late November in a preseason tournament in the Bahamas. It is important to note that the Cardinals’ second leading scorer and leading rebounder, center Gorgui Dieng, did not play then but will play in today’s game.
When it comes to today’s game, where the winner will advance to play Wichita State next weekend in Atlanta, this is a contrast of styles in many ways. Louisville is keyed by their defense which some consider the best in the national and their ability to turn that great defense into offense rather quickly, either off of a turnover or a defensive rebound. In fact, the Cardinals have not allowed their opponents to score 80+ points in regulation all year. Their opponent in this game, Duke, is known for the potent offense led by Ryan Kelly, Mason Plumlee, and Seth Curry. In particular, Duke is terrific from three-point range, shooting over 40% from three this year. This was clearly demonstrated on Friday, when the shot 39% from 3 led by Curry who went 6 for 9 from long-range in their 11 point win over the Spartans. In order for the Blue Devils to reach Atlanta they must stop the Cardinals’ guards, Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, from penetrating the interior of their defense (something they have struggled with at times this year). If the Cardinals want to make their second straight Final Four they must close on out Curry and the rest of Duke’s shooter as well as control the glass, where they should have a distinct edge. To be specific, the Cardinals were in top 50 in rebounding in the country averaging 37.5 per game while Duke wasn’t even in the top 200 averaging under 34 per game; if Duke can limit Louisville’s rebounding edge, thus limiting Pitino’s team to one shot and maximizing their possessions, they have a good shot to win. In the end, I see Louisville’s defense limiting the Blue Devil’s effectiveness from three and the presence of 6-11 Dieng allowing them to control the glass and the game 74-65.
There are still many questions unanswered including will a #1 seed fail to advance to the national finals for only the fourth time since seeding began in 1979, will the Big East get two teams to Atlanta in the last year in it’s classic form, will the Big 10 (the best conference all year) have a representative in the Final Four, and most importantly who will join Syracuse and Wichita State on the biggest stage in college athletics? We are less than an hour away from beginning to find out the answer to these questions and more, hope you enjoy the tremendous action that is about to unfold.