Louisville still team to beat

ASSOCIATED PRESS Rick Pitino celebrates after his Louisville team defeats Duke to advance to Final Four.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Rick Pitino celebrates after his Louisville team defeats Duke to advance to Final Four.
Posted: April 02, 2013

THE TEAM to beat heading to Atlanta has not changed since everybody started filling out their brackets 2 weeks ago. Kevin Ware's gruesome first-half injury on Sunday delayed the inevitable. Duke was nearly on tilt then, just about ready to be run out of the arena. When Louisville coach Rick Pitino called timeout with 16 minutes left in Sunday's game and the score tied 42-42, he told his team to sprint the ball to the rim and pressure the ball on defense until Duke got exhausted. Barely 6 minutes later, Duke had no legs, Louisville had a 15-point lead, it was essentially over on the way to 85-63 and the Final Four was set.

The Final Four

Just to demonstrate how much the game has changed in the 75 years of the NCAA Tournament, it took 30 wins to gain entrance to the 2013 Final Four. After 64 games have been played, Louisville (Midwest), Michigan (South), Syracuse (East) and Wichita State (West) are still playing.

On the original seed list, put out March 17, we have No. 1 Louisville, No. 13 Michigan, No. 16 Syracuse and No. 35 Wichita State.

We have the old Big East soon to be ACC (Syracuse), the old Big East soon to be in the No Name League on the way to the ACC (Louisville), the Big Ten (Michigan) and the Missouri Valley (Wichita State).

We have one Hall of Fame coach (Jim Boeheim), another who should be announced Monday (Rick Pitino), a great coach in his first Final Four (John Beilein) and the still semi-anonymous, but obviously very good Gregg Marshall.

Doing it with offense

Pitino is one of the best because he is constantly reinventing himself and the way his teams play. The Cardinals entered this tournament with the nation's most efficient defense. So what does Pitino do? He got his offense into total attack mode from the opening tap, daring opponents to stop the dribble and protect the lane. None of them has come close to stopping the rush to the rim yet.

Louisville is shooting an incredible 119-216 (55.1 percent) from the field in four games. They put up 50 points in the second half against Duke while scoring an insane 1.52 points per possession with just two threes.

Russ Smith has scored 23, 27, 31 and 23 points. He is shooting 35-for-66 (53 percent) and 32-for-40 (80 percent) from the foul line. When Smith and Peyton Siva start running the ball at defenses, getting out of the way seems the only option.

Duke had held teams to 55-for-155 (35.85 percent) through three games. Louisville shot 29-for-55 (52.7 percent).

Duke's Seth Curry had scored 72 points in three games. He had 12 points against the Cardinals, none in the first half.

The committee did Duke no favors by putting the Blue Devils, the second No. 2 seed, in the Midwest against the overall No. 1. Put Duke in any other region and the Blue Devils may very well be playing in Atlanta.

Pitino, however, had been waiting 21 years for those 40 minutes. It showed by the passion with which he coached and his team played.

Offense wins

The South Region final was the nation's most efficient offense (Michigan, 1.21 PPP) against the second most efficient defense (Florida, .831). Offense won decisively as the Wolverines crushed the Gators, 79-59. It was 13-0, 23-5, 30-11 and over fast. Michigan scored 1.31 PPP in the first half. In the NCAA, the Wolverines are shooting 124-for-251 (49.4 percent), 33-for-82 (40.3 percent) from three and have committed just 40 fouls.

Florida, which became the first school to lose in the Elite Eight for 3 consecutive years, had several late-game meltdowns during the season. This was an early-game meltdown. The Gators ignored Nik Stauskas, who was 6-for-6 from the arc, each from the same spot in the left corner. Trey Burke did whatever he wanted and Mitch McGary (33-for-45, 73.3 percent, 70 points in four NCAA games) continued his terrific play.

Michigan made 10 threes to just two for Florida. Can't overcome 30-6 on the scoreboard. Florida was the much more experienced team, but played young while one of the youngest teams in college basketball played old and smart. The Gators' offense (.831 PPP) was off all day against by far the weakest defense in this Final Four.

Defense wins

Syracuse scored 39 points in its regular-season finale at Georgetown. Saturday, Syracuse gave up 39 points to Marquette on the same Verizon Center floor in the East final.

In 21 days, Boeheim's team went from confused to playing the best four-game stretch of defense in years. Their four opponents have shot 61-for-211 (28.9 percent) overall and 14-for-91 (15.4 percent) from three. Those teams have more turnovers (66) than baskets (61). The 'Cuse has 44 steals and 25 blocks. The defensive points per possession numbers are off the charts - Montana (.52 PPP), California (.88), Indiana (.77), the most efficient offense in the country, and Marquette (.72)

The statistics are incredible. Watching the zone move as one is even more amazing. If a team can't get the ball to the hands of a good decision maker in the middle of the defense, that team is in serious trouble. It will be up to Michigan to try to solve the riddle in the second game on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.

Wichita State has been winning with defense and rebounding, staples from yesteryear. The Shockers have held their opponents to 35.9 percent shooting overall and 25.3 percent from the arc. Gonzaga was the only team to score more than 0.93 points per possession.

The Shockers are also more athletic than you grasp watching on television and two deep at every position. There is nothing fluky about this No. 9 seed in the Final Four. They deserved to win every game they played, blowing open the games against Pittsburgh (late) and La Salle (early), making an incredible late run to catch Gonzaga and holding off a late charge from Ohio State.

Wichita continues the recent tradition of George Mason (2006), Butler (2010, 2011) and VCU (2011), a team from outside the Big Six landing in the Final Four. Now, the Shockers will have to figure out a way to deal with Louisville.

Big Ten story

Michigan rescued the Big Ten, the nation's best conference during the regular season with that miracle win Friday against Kansas and a blowout of Florida Sunday. Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota went quietly. Regular-season champion Indiana was lucky to survive the third round and then baffled by Syracuse in the Sweet 16. Tournament champion Ohio State needed last-second shots to beat Iowa State and Arizona before getting clearly outplayed by Wichita State. Michigan State could do nothing against Duke's defense.

The matchups

It will be Michigan's great offense against the Syracuse defense that has dominated all four NCAA opponents.

Wichita State's toughness will be up against Louisville, the best team heading into the tournament and the best team in the tournament.

Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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