Final Four breakdown

ASSOCIATED PRESS Last Sunday's injury made Louisville's Kevin Ware a celebrity but also a Final Four spectator.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Last Sunday's injury made Louisville's Kevin Ware a celebrity but also a Final Four spectator.
Posted: April 08, 2013

ATLANTA - Exactly 47 of the 8.15 million brackets filled out in ESPN's bracket challenge got the entire Final Four correct. Just .46 percent got three of four. So, predicting Wichita State-Louisville and Syracuse-Michigan on Saturday night in the Georgia Dome proved quite difficult.

Selecting Louisville to win the championship was less daunting. Nearly 22 percent of all brackets selected Louisville to win it. And the Cardinals are still the favorites, 10 points over the Shockers and something like half that if they were to play Syracuse or Michigan on Monday night.

Wichita-Louisville will go first. The Shockers have had 7 full days to consider the ramifications of what they have done. Historically, teams with their profile have not played well in this spot after celebrating the achievement for a week. This will be their first dome game and they are playing a team that was in the Final Four last year and just finished off Duke in a dome.

Everybody saw the footage of Kevin Ware's horrific injury last Sunday. Now, he has done the Top 10 on Letterman, he is here with his team and it is expected that he will make a full recovery. In the here and now, his absence hurts Louisville. Ware was playing the best basketball of his college career as the first guard off the bench behind Russ Smith and Peyton Siva.

"Well, we don't have a backcourt substitute,"' coach Rick Pitino said. "We had a great rotation. All three guards were playing well. Obviously, when you press and run as much as we do, it becomes a great concern when you don't have a substitute . . . We can't change our style of play because we won't win or have a chance of winning."

Ware, of course, has become an instant celebrity.

"I'm just glad to know Kevin Ware now even more because he's probably the most famous person I know," Siva said. "You know, when you have Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama call you . . . "

Even without Ware, Louisville is supposed to win. Pitino knows it. Everybody knows it. He also knows the Shockers are no fluke.

"They're the best team we will have faced this year at the defensive end," Pitino said. "They are Marquette on steroids in terms of the way they play defense."

That may be true. It is also true that the Shockers have not played a defensive team like Louisville.

The Cardinals run the nation's most efficient defense. They press, zone and play man-to-man. They disguise what they do and change defenses within possessions. They allow their opponents to score just .816 points per possession. And their NCAA Tournament offense, with the brilliant Smith flying at the rim, has been unstoppable.

"We can't play with five guards, because then you're not going to be able to get a rebound," Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. "We're going to need all the available hands on deck to take care of the basketball, be strong with it, organize and attack Louisville's pressure in an intelligent and sound way."

With Louisville down a man and the Shockers having so many ballhandlers, they may be able to do that, but will they be able to slow down Smith and the Louisville offense?

"Russ Smith is like a contortionist with his body," Marshall said. "He's incredible how he can get in and change angles and get to the foul line and finish."

More than anything, the Shockers are an effort team. Asked to describe his team's style, point guard Malcolm Armstead said: "Playing with energy, passion, playing like your hair's on fire."

Still, it has to be a little concerning that the Shockers were in near panic at the end of the West Regional Final against Ohio State when the Buckeyes applied token pressure. There is nothing token about the Cardinals' pressure.

Here is the other human reality. Wichita State has already won the equivalent of a national championship for schools from its level. Louisville is back in the Final Four for one reason - to win the national championship.

Wichita State has been a great surprise getting here. The surprise Saturday night will be if the Shockers keep this game close.

Michigan-Syracuse is the ultimate contrast in styles.

The Wolverines have the most efficient offensive in the country, scoring 1.22 PPP. They commit the fewest fouls and the fewest turnovers. They are the only quality three-point shooting team in this Final Four. What they don't have is much of a bench or much experience. They are actually the fourth youngest team in college basketball. But they do have sophomore point guard Trey Burke, the national player of the year.

Syracuse has played by far the best defense in this tournament, holding teams to a ridiculous 29 percent shooting, 15 percent from the arc. Nobody plays zone like Syracuse and hardly anybody in the Big Ten ever plays zone.

"We've played the zone the best that we played it probably in all the years we've been playing zone," coach Jim Boeheim said.

The numbers back him up, but . . .

"Michigan is the best offensive team we've played," he said.

The Wolverines certainly have the shooters. They have the great penetrator in Burke. But do they have the bigger player who can catch the ball in the gaps of the zone and make instant decisions?

"They're a team that can spread the floor shooting threes," Syracuse's Brandon Triche said. "One thing our zone has been able to do, especially in the tournament, is stop guys from shooting threes."

It is no secret how to beat the zone. There is a formula. But, if you don't have the right personnel, the formula is irrelevant.

"We do a great job of making people take tough shots," James Southerland said. "I know Michigan is a young team, we're a little bit older so we're going to definitely try to play a little smarter."

It will be fascinating to see what Michigan coach John Beilein, a true offensive innovator, has designed to combat the zone.

"Even when I first broke into coaching, going to the first clinics, Jim was talking about the 2-3 zone back in 1975, 1976, 1977, when I began as a high school coach," Beilein said.

Michigan is not without confident players. "If the zone was unbeatable, then they would be 39-0," Tim Hardaway Jr. said. "We're just going to go out there, play our game, not worry about what they're going to do."

A few years ago, Boeheim went exclusively to the 2-3. And there are times, like these last four games, when it is absolute work of defensive art.

That will be the game within the second game: the nation's best offense against this tournament's best defense. And whichever team wins that game will win "the" game and get to play Louisville for the championship on Monday night.

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