Louisville, Syracuse, Wichita State and Michigan take the floor this weekend for the Final Four. We preview Saturday's games by tapping into our expert bloggers.
by Mike Rutherford
A year after making the Final Four and being one of the underdogs in the event's history, the Louisville Cardinals come to Atlanta as the prohibitive favorites to win their third national championship. U of L rolled through the Midwest Region, winning its four games by an average of almost 22 points. The Cards were dealt a difficult blow in the Elite 8, however, when sophomore guard Kevin Ware suffered a broken leg that left each member of the team visibly shaken. Louisville has since adopted the motto "Win for Ware" and will sport warm-ups with his No. 5 at the Final Four.
by Benjamin Miraski
If Wichita State is going to have any chance of taking down Louisville, it is important that they control the game over the first five minutes. When the Shockers have been most successful at this, they execute what amounts to a blitz attack against the opponent -- high pressure defense almost non-stop, five-player crash rebounding, strong transition offense. This allowed them to bury La Salle from the tip, and instances of this later in games against Ohio State and Pitt got them this far. Coming back from a 10-point deficit against the Shockers is like trying to battle from 25 back against anyone else.
Cast of characters
by Mike Rutherford and Benjamin Miraski
The excitable junior guard who earned the nickname "Russdiculous" from head coach Rick Pitino last season has been nothing short of spectacular in the NCAA Tournament. Smith is averaging 26 ppg and leads the tournament in both scoring and steals. He was named the Midwest Region's Most Outstanding Player after Louisville's win over Duke.
The 7-foot center from Senegal is probably the best NBA prospect on Louisville's roster. He set the school record for blocked shots in 2011-12, a record he probably would have broken this season had he not been forced to miss nearly all of December because of a fractured wrist. Still, he was enough of a force in the paint to be named the Big East's Defensive Player of the Year. Dieng can also get it done on the offensive end, where he's averaging 11.0 ppg in the tournament.
The senior captain is the calming force that every team needs. He also might be the most sure-handed point guard in the country. The two-time Big East Tournament MVP has 20 assists in four NCAA Tournament games, and he played 33 minutes against Duke without turning the ball over once.
The Shockers center is not as visually intimidating since he chopped off the Predator locks he wore heading into the NCAA Tournament, but his bite is just as fierce. He is an underrated shot blocker and almost as good at causing rejections as Louisville's Gorgui Dieng. Hall will be a crucial piece in keeping the Cardinals honest inside.
The flop-top Baker is the most efficient offensive player and effective shooter on the Shockers. After missing almost half the season with injury, he has been called the most important player for Wichita State in this tournament. His four threes against Gonzaga (from a 34.6 percent three-point shooter) were crucial in the upset.
Fred Van Vleet
The back-up point guard for the Shockers was a top-100 recruit, one of the few at the mid-major ranks. He should get the nickname 'Dagger' for his ability to hit the clutch shot to swing momentum (see his 30-foot three-pointer vs. Gonzaga, see his closing time shot vs. Ohio State). He will be undersized (just 5'11) against Louisville, but will challenge the Cardinal guards perhaps better than starter Malcolm Armstead.
by Zach Travis
The one aspect of Michigan's game that has been the most important thus far in the tournament is the one people aren't talking about much. Michigan has been the best team in the nation at ball-control with a turnover rate of 14.5 percent on the year: despite playing three stellar defensive teams the last three games, Michigan has kept each game close to that average. In doing so the Wolverines have gotten more shots and allowed fewer transition opportunities for opposing teams. Going into a Final Four against three good defensive teams, this is Michigan's best chance of winning it all. Neutralize opposing defenses by valuing possessions and getting more shots, and in doing so make the other team's offense outscore yours. With an offense that includes Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and a blossoming Mitch McGary, Michigan can turn the tables and dictate the game in a way that few offenses are capable of.
by Sean Keeley
Have you heard that Syracuse plays a 2-3 zone defense? It's true, but it doesn't tell the whole story about the team. Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche, C.J. Fair and James Southerland make for a fearsome foursome offensively when they're all clicking. The Orange went through a lot of growing pains throughout the season but they're clicking at the perfect time. And if you don't think Jim Boeheim is doing another masterful coaching job, then you don't know your business, you disloyal idiot.
Cast of characters
by Zach Travis and Sean Keeley
Trey Burke has already established himself as an all-American to just about everyone, and Friday was named this season's Wooden Award winner for it. He has delivered for Michigan every step of the way when the Wolverines have needed it most. He is two games away from establishing himself as one of the all-time great Wolverines, and he will still go down as a pantheon player if Michigan loses Saturday. I have nothing else to say than: enjoy every second of Trey Burke in a Michigan uniform, because talent like that doesn't come around everyday.
Tim Hardaway Jr.
Tim Hardaway Jr. might be the streakiest scorer in the nation. When he is dialed in he is a triple threat to score from inside to out and open up shots for teammates. When he is off he is way off, often trying to find his shot through volume of shots alone. He helped Michigan bury SDSU with 21 points on an 80.7 eFG%, but he has regressed the last three games all the way to a 3-13 (1-5 3 pt) shooting game against Florida. The difference between this year and last is his ability to help out in other ways (i.e. rebound and assist), but for Michigan to make it out of this weekend on top against three strong defensive teams, Hardaway is going to have to have two efficient offensive games.
Mitch McGary has been -- outside of Burke, of course -- the most important player on Michigan's roster so far in the tournament. His post defense has been stellar, both bodying up to post scorers and creating turnovers with unprecedented quickness for a big man (eight steals in the last two games against all-conference level upperclassmen post players). He has also pulled down 46 rebounds (14 offensive) in the tournament, and he has almost singlehandedly negated Michigan's biggest weakness from the Big Ten season -- the lack of rebounding and post defense against very good teams -- while giving Michigan a hyper-efficient offensive weapon that doesn't need plays run for him to generate scoring. When you add in a half-dozen possessions he either gains or saves for Michigan with pure hustle, it is hard to overstate his importance in what the Wolverines have been able to do on both sides of the ball.
At some point during the game, you're going to check the boxscore and find out that C.J. Fair has 15 points and eight rebounds and you're not going to have any idea how it happened. Syracuse's garbageman is also their most dependable player.
When he's hot, he's unstoppable from beyond the three-point line. When he's not, you'll forget he's even in the game. Southerland has put that mid-season suspension behind him and has the potential to single-handidly win a game for SU.
His full name might be Baye Moussa Keita but Syracuse fans have taken to calling him Baye Matrix Keita. Unfortunately, no one can be told how Keita gets all those loose balls, errant rebounds and hustle points. You have to see it for yourself.