This weekend’s Final Four represents a microcosm of what’s currently plaguing college basketball. There are no supreme talents or dominant personalities besides the coaches, and, most likely, the name that will resonate will be Kevin Ware’s. Louisville has garnered so much coverage this week that it’s understandable if you forgot who the three other teams in this tournament were. The Shadow League is here to re-introduce them all.
Both Michigan and Syracuse are returning to the Final Four on anniversaries of a different ilk. The Orange is back in, 10 years after ’Melo's ’03 title run. Meanwhile, it’s been 20 years since C-Webb’s timeout cost Michigan the National Championship. Although, this Michigan group doesn’t carry the same cultural cache as the Fab 5, they are the youngest team in the tournament. Wichita State is, to be frank, chasing history. Here’s what to watch out for, from Saturday’s Final Four through Monday’s national championship.
Why They’ll Win It: They don’t have an Anthony Davis-type window cleaner defending their basket, but on any given night, one of the Wolverines’ multiple future NBA draft picks can put the scoring load on his back. Trey Burke became the first point guard named AP National Player of the Year since Jameer Nelson in 2004. Tim Hardaway Jr. has been an observer for much of the tournament, but he can turn up the scoring anytime. Together they form the most explosive scoring backcourt in college hoops, while Mitch McGary has been a revelation in the post, and they’ve shown they can execute late in close games.
Why They Won’t: Their defense is about as secure as the Mexican border. Michigan possesses more offensive talent than any team in the nation, but defense takes experience and ultimately, it wins championships. Since 2003, when defensive efficiency and points-per-possession data began getting tracked, every NCAA champion has finished the season ranked in the top 20 nationally. Michigan is currently ranked 45th nationally. Also, John Beilein is 0-9 all-time against Jim Boeheim, his National Semifinal counterpart.
Why They’ll Win It: Playing Boeheim’s zone is like getting lost in a maze. In the Elite 8, Marquette was as successful finding the basket as the NCAA has been in uncovering violations to pin on the Orangemen program. The zone works so well because of their obvious talent and execution, but their size is also a major factor. Syracuse’s starting backcourt consists of 6´4˝ Brandon Triche and 6´6˝ point guard Michael Carter-Williams. They’ll tower over Louisville’s Peyton Siva and Russ Smith (6´0˝ and 6´1˝) or Michigan’s Trey Burke (6´0˝). MC-Dubb and Triche are just the beginning. As a unit, the Syracuse defense is averaging 45 points per game through four tournament games.
Why They Won’t: If an opponent gets hot from three, the Syracuse zone becomes a weakness. As we witnessed during their midseason slump, if you can limit the scoring production of their perimeter scorers, you can capitalize on their lack of a capable low-post scorer who can make an impact.
Why They’ll Win It: Rick Pitino has his boys playing at their peak and beating their press is more difficult than scaling Everest. They’ve also got the emotional edge. Everybody is dialed in to win a title for Ware. Louisville’s attacking press left the Midwest region gasping for air, and Gorgui Dieng is a strong deterrent in the lane.
Why They Won’t: Louisville’s shooting is more suspect than a police lineup. Their guards are small and tend to score in transition off of turnovers and long rebounds, but they could struggle in the half-court against an elite point guard like Trey Burke. Meanwhile, Russ Smith has been able to reel in his erratic decision-making, but he could falter against Syracuse’s zone, as he did in the Big East title game, if he can’t get into the lane or to the free throw line.
Why They’ll Win It: What they lack in talent, they make up for in experience and a physical style of play. If there was ever a year for a mid-major to finish what Butler started, this could be it. While Kentucky missed the entire tournament one year after winning the national championship with a roster composed of McDonald’s All-Americans, a champion composed of flawed JUCO transfers would be the ultimate indictment of the one-and-done era.
Why They Won’t: The Shockers would be the first national champion in modern history without a high school All-American, collegiate All-American or future first-round pick on its roster. Before beating Ohio State, Wichita State’s NCAA Tournament victories came against Gonzaga, La Salle and Pitt, all teams that have a history of getting bounced early in the tournament.
The West Region was just like home for the Shockers of Wichita, Kansas, but this is Oz. Not the one with flying monkeys and a yellow brick road, either. This is the HBO series. The Shockers are locked up with a Michigan, Louisville and Syracuse triumvirate. Facing Louisville’s defense is 40 minutes of solitary confinement. They may be due for an unpleasant early release.