NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Final FourPosted by Brian Otskey on April 5th, 2013
Two games to get to Monday night… here are our breakdowns.
#1 Louisville vs. #9 Wichita State – National Semifinal (at Atlanta, GA) – 6:09 PM ET on CBS
Let’s get this out of the way right off the top – Louisville is the heavy favorite. Vegas calls them a 10-point favorite and KenPom.com agrees. They’re on a 14-game winning streak and have won those games by an average of 18 points. In a season where for the most part there has been no clear-cut favorite all year long, we certainly have a clear-cut favorite now. If some team other than the Cardinals are cutting down the nets on Monday night, it will be a surprise. So, with that said, let’s ask how Wichita State can keep this game close? First, it begins with playing the type of defense it has played in the tournament so far (0.94 PPP allowed in their four games). In particular, the Shockers have caused trouble for some big-time guards, limiting Tray Woodall of Pitt to what he called his worst game ever, harassing Kevin Pangos into 6-of-17 shooting, holding La Salle’s perimeter players to a combined 14-of-47 shooting, and making Aaron Craft a non-factor offensively. If guys like Malcolm Armstead, Tekele Cotton, Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker can turn in a similar performance and limit potentially erratic guards like Russ Smith and Peyton Siva (who, for instance, in Louisville’s last loss, combined to shoot just 5-of-25 from the field in a five-overtime loss) to poor shooting nights, that is step one for the Shockers.
Step two is having the Shocker “big” guys, Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall (both just 6’8”), stay out of foul trouble and stay effective against the likes of Gorgui Dieng inside. Hall and Early have both been foul prone this season, but on a team without a ton of skilled depth up front, Gregg Marshall will need the services of those two for the bulk of the game. But not only are the Cardinals a potent offensive team, they are the nation’s best defensive team – by a long shot. In the KenPom era (dating back to 2003), they’re the only team with an adjusted defensive rating below 82.0, essentially equivalent to allowing less than 0.82 points per possession. And while Wichita has had good success offensively in this tournament (1.09 PPP), they are about to face a whole different animal. The good news is, they just got done withstanding the pressure defense of Craft, one of the nation’s best perimeter defenders. The bad news is, Smith is even better. And he’s paired with Siva who is also one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders. And should Wichita escape the perimeter pressure and get the ball inside, either on the bounce or on the pass, there’s Dieng waiting for them as a potent shot-blocker. For Wichita to have success against that defense, they’ll need to have guards like Baker, Armstead and VanVleet to connect from deep, and they’ll need Early to be able to bring his man out of the middle and knock down some perimeter shots as well, essentially softening up the Cardinal interior for exploitation later in the game.
One bit of good news for the Shockers, with Dieng attempting to block almost every shot in the paint, the Cards don’t do a great job cleaning the defensive glass, while the Shockers are among the best in the nation at getting on the offensive boards; that trend will also have to continue for the Shockers to have a chance. So, those are a whole lot of ifs and buts. And we haven’t even mentioned potent Louisville weapons like Chane Behanan, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear. The fact is, it is going to take a major confluence of events for the Shockers to stick around in this game. They’ve shown that they not only get great coaching, but they take that coaching well. And, as always, they’re going to play angry, so if you look up at the final media timeout and see the Shockers in the ball game, don’t be, well, shocked. But more likely the talent advantage that the Cardinals have slowly but surely wears Wichita down and Rick Pitino advances to his third national championship game.
The RTC Certified Pick: Louisville
#4 Syracuse vs. #4 Michigan — National Semifinal (at Atlanta, GA) — 8:49 PM ET on CBS.
With all due respect to Louisville and Wichita State, the marquee match-up of this Final Four comes in the second game as two number four seeds will battle it out for the right to advance to Monday night and play for a national championship. Two of the finest coaches in basketball, both native sons of upstate New York clash in this one as John Beliein gets to experience his first ever Final Four and Jim Boeheim coaches in his fourth. These two men have coached against one another nine previous times and Boeheim’s Syracuse team is 9-0 against any team headed by Beilein. The Syracuse legend will put that record and a 3-0 national semifinals record on the line against an extremely talented (but young) Michigan squad on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome.
The 30-7 Wolverines have found new life in the NCAA Tournament after closing the Big Ten season and conference tournament with six losses in 12 games. Michigan features the best player in the country in sophomore point guard Trey Burke, the orchestrator of the nation’s most efficient offensive attack. In four NCAA Tournament games, Burke’s Wolverines have averaged 78.8 PPG on 49.4% shooting. Burke simply does it all. His unique ability to beat you off the bounce, set up a teammate or beat you from deep (as he did to Kansas) is unmatched in the college game today. The big question in this game is whether or not the 6’0” Burke will be able to get his shot off against the length and athleticism of the Syracuse zone. If he can’t it may become harder for him to excel at the other parts of his game because of all the energy expended trying to get a quality look at the basket. But Michigan will need more than just Burke to be on top of his game in order to beat a Syracuse team that features Boeheim’s trademark 2-3 zone, a defense that has stifled opponents all season long and, quite frankly, unlike anything the young Wolverines have ever seen before. Michigan is going to have to make jump shots in order to win this game, no easy task despite its potent offense. The good news is that Michigan has shooters with length who can shoot over the top of the zone, something that Big Ten rival Indiana was exposed for not having in its Sweet 16 game with the Orange. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas have to make shots for Michigan to win, it’s that simple. Hardaway has had his up and down moments this season but when he’s hot, he can fill it up with the best of them. He will need to use his height and strength to create enough space and move well without the ball in order to get open looks. As for Stauskas, the Canadian freshman sensation was as hot as could be in the Elite Eight win over Florida. Things won’t be as easy this time around with James Southerland and/or C.J. Fair closing out on him as he sets up in his favorite corner spot. However, Michigan can still attack the zone fairly well if Stauskas has an off night. With Syracuse closing out on the shooters, the baseline may open up allowing Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary to operate along it. McGary in particular has been phenomenal in the NCAA Tournament. It has been reported that the Michigan coaching staff felt as early as November and December that the emergence of McGary would be crucial to the team’s success in March. Boy, has it ever been. McGary is a warrior in the paint and on the glass, something every team needs to combat Syracuse. In this game, McGary has to hit the offensive boards extra hard because of all the jump shots Michigan will likely be taking.
Syracuse features a unique point guard of its own, one who also happens to be a sophomore. After playing an average of just over 10 minutes per game in his freshman season, Michael Carter-Williams has exploded onto the national scene in 2012-13. At 6’6,” Carter-Williams possesses length and athleticism that you can’t teach and a great handle for someone of such stature. MCW, as he is known, is similar to Burke in that he is the spark which makes Syracuse go but he’s quite different from Burke in many ways. Carter-Williams does not possess nearly the same outside shooting ability as Burke and Syracuse is at its best when its point guard focuses less on his own shooting and more on creating shots for his teammates. Syracuse is lethal in transition because of its ability to seamlessly rotate defensively, creating plenty of deflections and steals. That won’t be so easy against Michigan though, the nation’s best team in terms of ball protection. Michigan turns the ball over on only 14.5% of its possessions and that presents a problem for the Orange. In the half court, Syracuse will likely see plenty of good looks against a Wolverine defense that is good but certainly not elite. Southerland and Fair are potential match-up nightmares for Michigan because of their ability to hit mid and long range shots. Both are 6’8” and will have at least two inches on whichever Wolverine players guard them. These two players could be the key in determining whether or not Boeheim will get to coach in his fourth national championship game or not. Although Syracuse is certainly a strong offensive team, the story of the NCAA Tournament has been its defense. The Orange zone is playing at an incredibly high level and Boeheim has called it one of the best he’s ever had in 37 seasons at the school. In four tournament games, Syracuse’s opponents have managed just 45.8 PPG on an anemic 28.9% shooting. The Orange rank fifth nationally in defensive efficiency thanks to a terrific combination of perimeter quickness and length and a massive back line with athletic shot blockers and rebounders. Syracuse will be put to the test by the nation’s best offense and it’ll be interesting to see what gives in this match-up.
This could shape up to be an epic battle between a great offense and a great defense. It’s a fascinating match-up on paper and should be terrific when played out on the Georgia Dome court. It is going to come down to shot making in the end because the free throw line figures to be insignificant. Michigan ranks first in defensive free throw rate and Syracuse is not a good free throw shooting team to begin with. On the other side, Michigan rarely gets to the free throw line meaning it must shoot well from the floor in order to win. This should be a good old-fashion basketball game where the best team wins and the officials don’t decide it (or ruin it by calling a lot of fouls). If the game does come down to the final possession or two, Michigan is the better foul shooting team. Neither club is deep with both coaches preferring a six to seven man rotation. One aspect that hasn’t gotten the attention it probably should is the experience factor. Syracuse starts two seniors and its top five rotation players have all played at least one full season of college basketball. As for Michigan, four of its top six players are freshmen. It is pretty remarkable that Beilein has gotten a team that young to this point but there’s no telling how they will react to the pressure of all eyes being on them and just two wins away from a championship. The Wolverine rotation does not include one senior and has only two juniors. Syracuse has a significant edge in experience and that could very well be a factor in this game. In the end, the Orange have a lot going for them. While it won’t be as easy to dismantle Michigan like Syracuse did to Indiana, the Wolverines’ reliance on shot making versus the perimeter length of the Orange seems just a bit too much to overcome. The Orange have a strong experience edge both on the sideline and on the floor, plus Boeheim’s history versus Beilein cannot be ignored. It should be a close game and neither outcome would be surprising but give Syracuse the edge in this one.
The RTC Certified Pick: Syracuse.