Nine of the last ten NCAA champions have had at least one lottery pick on their roster, with the one exception being Duke in 2010. Rewarding collegiate success hasn't always worked out that well for NBA teams (see: Sean May, Mateen Cleaves), but there's no denying it happens. The Final Four is the biggest stages in the sport, so everything a player does, win or lose, is magnified. The sheen of a championship can gloss over a lot of the flaws in a prospect's game, which is why there's so much money on the line this weekend.
For three of the four teams -- Louisville (Gorgui Dieng), Michigan (Trey Burke) and Syracuse (Michael Carter-Williams) -- one player has clearly emerged from the pack as a potential lottery selection. The fourth, Wichita State, is the classic Cinderella, with no players who have gotten legitimate buzz in NBA draft circles. The Shockers win or lose as a team, but the other three will only go as far as their best player can take them. For Dieng, Burke and Carter-Williams, this weekend is their first (and possibly best) chance at basketball immortality.
Here's a look at what they'll need to do to cut down the nets in Atlanta and what they stand to gain in the process:
Burke has been the breakout star of the Tournament. He's the QB of an incredibly explosive offensive attack which dissected South Dakota State, VCU and Florida. In their closest game, an OT victory over Kansas in the Sweet 16, Burke hit a 30-foot moon shot at the end of regulation that will go down in Michigan history. In a year without a clear-cut hierarchy at the top, Burke still has a lot of room to climb on draft boards. However, getting past Syracuse will present an entirely different type of challenge for the Wolverines star PG.
The beauty of the 2-3 zone, especially when you have the athletes Syracuse does, is that you can dictate who on the floor will beat you. The things Burke has done in the last two weeks won't work on Saturday. You can't run a pick-and-roll from the top of the key against a zone. In general, you're not going to beat a zone by dribbling into the paint. You have to pass it in, which means you need a big man capable of being a threat and making plays from the free-throw line. Burke can't win this game offensively for Michigan, but he can lose it by trying to do too much.
Where Burke can make a difference is on the defensive end of the floor. Syracuse runs most of their offense through their own star PG, so if Burke can disrupt Carter-Williams' rhythm and prevent him from getting into the lane, the Orange will have a hard time scoring. Just as importantly, Burke has to turn him over and manufacture some transition opportunities. Carter-Williams' four turnovers were one of the keys in Louisville's victory over the Orange in the Big East championship game. It's very hard to score against Syracuse in the half-court, so you want to get as many easy points as possible.
Carter-Williams has been a little under the radar in comparison to Burke, but he's been just as impressive. When he was knocking down jumpers and not turning it over in their victory over Indiana in the Sweet 16, he looked incredible. Right now, the top of the point guard heap is a little in flux. If Burke was 6'6, he'd be the No. 1 overall pick. If Carter-Williams shot, say, 38 percent from beyond the arc, he would be. Instead, they are both right behind Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart in the point guard hierarchy. They represent a fascinating contrast for any lottery team looking for a point guard. Saturday night might make choosing between them a little easier.
And while Burke will need to take on a smaller role to beat the zone, Carter-Williams is the Syracuse offense. He's the only guy on Syracuse's roster who can consistently create shots for his teammates, so the ball is in his hands a lot. And when he's getting into the lane, the Orange are pretty hard to beat. What will be interesting is whether John Beilein elects to put a bigger guard on Carter-Williams -- perhaps Tim Hardaway Jr. or Glenn Robinson III -- or whether he'll go with Burke and hope his ball pressure can speed up Carter-Williams. In the half-court, it will be a tough match-up for Burke, who is giving up six inches.
His statistics don't necessarily jump off the page, but Dieng's ability to fill an important role at the next level makes him very intriguing. He's a defensive-minded center with prototypical size for his position who is also capable of being an offensive threat out to 15-20 feet. Dieng, in essence, lets you go small on offense while still playing big on defense. That's a huge advantage for a team at any level of basketball, and his improvement is the biggest reason for Louisville's dominating play in the last two weeks. On defense, Dieng's ability to lock down the paint allows the Cardinals to gamble and trap all over the floor. On offense, his ability to bring the other team's center out of the paint creates driving lanes that the Louisville guards are more than capable of exploiting.
Dieng is going to present match-up problems for any of the other three teams. Wichita State likes to bully other teams and out-work them on the boards, but is that really going to work against a 6'11 245-pound monster with a 7'4 wingspan? Michigan likes to run pick-and-rolls with Mitch McGary rolling to the rim, but they won't be used to running them against a center with as much foot-speed as Dieng. Against Syracuse, Dieng's ability to pass out of the high post at 6'11 is the Kryptonite to Jim Boeheim's zone. He had eight assists and only one turnover in their Big East Championship Game victory over the Orange.
He won't be a star at the next level because he's already 23 years old, not an explosive scorer and isn't a next-level above-the-rim presence like Nerlens Noel. Nevertheless, he's going to be one of the safer picks available in the draft. At the very least, he'll be a high-level back-up center locked into a cost-controlled contract for at least four years. Centers are hard to find in free agency and they are generally expensive. For a team like the Mavericks, which has a lot of holes they need to fill with their cap space, Dieng is the most efficient way to get an NBA-caliber center immediately.