ATB: Final Four EditionPosted by Chris Johnson on April 7th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Four Entered, Two Remain. College basketball teams divide postseason accomplishments into two categories. There are national championships, the crowning light at the end of a season-long tunnel, and there are Final Fours, the penultimate step on the ladderer to net-cutting bliss. The paths teams take to reach these accomplishments vary. Some outfits dominate all the way through, much in the way Kentucky obliterated its 2012 regular season competition en route to a national championship. Others peak at the opportune moment. Still others are just downright inexplicable – hey 2011 Butler!. This year’s Final Four offered none of those extremes, but the characterizations were granted willingly all the same, starting with Wichita State’s Cinderella description; or the sudden realization that yeah, actually, Louisville is the “dominant” team existing in a year where the theme of “no dominant team” and “parity” was rammed down our throats to the weekly rhythm of AP Poll variance. Those liberal generalizations were put to the test Saturday night, and at the end, two teams were left standing, awaiting their shot at a national championship, one step away from eternal hoops immortalization. It’s the Final Four, you know the deal – need I continue and longer?
Your Watercooler moment. Wolverines Survive Syracuse’s 2-3.
It took 10 tries for John Beilein to beat one of the greatest coaches of all time, but when it finally happened, the one positive result – Saturday night’s five-point Final Four win over Syracuse – made every ounce of previous negative history feel like a distant memory. Beilein’s Wolverines did just enough over 40 minutes to topple the Tournament’s hottest and most challenging defense to date, and the next step (Lousville) involves an equally perplexing defensive puzzle. Mitch McGary stood tall amongst Syracuse’s unrivaled length and defensive pressure, and in the end, his passing out of the high post and rebounding efforts (12) made all the difference. When McGary wasn’t on the court, the Orange extended their zone and closed out on shooters and consumed any and all free space in the paint. Michigan’s offense stagnated, and just when the situation called for player-of-the-year-award-hoarder Trey Burke to put the game out of reach, his cold shooting (1-for-8) only exacerbated the situation. Michigan deciphered Syracuse’s 2-3 riddle despite Burke playing one of his worst games of the season, but against a team that mixes similarly frightening defensive prowess with a more competent offense (at least in this Tournament), Burke will need to rediscover the all-purpose talents that made him the best player in the country throughout the regular season.
Before Michigan, the nation’s No. 1 efficiency offense, begins to even think about taking on Louisville, the nation’s No. 1 efficiency defense, the Wolverines can bask in the two decades-awaited opportunity to win a national championship. There were plenty of reasons to dismiss Michigan towards the end of the regular season. Its youth and lack of attention to defensive details were glaring flaws. Burke wasn’t good enough to carry everyone on his back. There was no reliable inside scoring presence. The Wolverines have answered all of those questions in a thrilling Tournament run that began with an opening-round slog against South Dakota State and added the latest unlikely chapter Saturday night. And with just one more stepping stone at hand, a strength-on-strength battle that shapes up as one of the most intriguing stylistic bouts we’ve seen all season, Michigan is well-suited to win its first national championship since 1989. All the regular season doubt has long been rendered misguided; Michigan’s here because it deserves to be. Few actually expected the Wolverines to reach this point, but now that they’re here, and McGary has turned into an All American-level star, and Michigan is winning games with Burke scoring two points, every conceivable outcome is officially on the table Monday night.
Also Worth Chatting About. Wichita State Cracks.
They were going to need to take care of the ball, and for huge chunk of Saturday night’s Final Four clash with Louisville, Wichita State made calculated decisions, minimized risky passes and kept everything simple. They dotted I’s and crossed t’s and took special care making sure everything pass traveled undeterred from point A to point B. Louisville was panicking, and not without reason. Russ Smith unleashed his nefarious dark side, the lamentable and unpredictably wild and chucker-inclined half of “Russdiculous”, and Peyton Siva looked rattled. To top it all off, Louisville didn’t have its most reliable backup guard, Kevin Ware. It did have Luke Hancock, a three-point specialist with basic backcourt skills, and walk-on Tim Henderson, who – let’s just throw it out there – wouldn’t have seen the floor (in a tight game) if not for the Cardinals’ taxing backcourt depth. This being the Final Four, it only followed that Henderson and Hancock would key Lousville’s second half comeback, complemented by a long-awaited breakthrough from Louisville’s smothering, turnover-creating, momentum-changing defense. Hancock buried a three at the 6:30 mark off a Shockers turnover to put Louisville up one, and the defense – the defining trait of Louisville’s 2013 season, of Pitino’s Hall of Fame coaching style – carried them home.
The outcome was not unexpected; the actual procession of the game itself was, and Wichita State deserves a rousing commendation for pushing the best team in the country to its breaking point. Gregg Marshall’s problem is no joke, as if you needed Saturday night to provide any newfound reassurance, and his team has every right, even in the aftermath of defeat, to underline the message the Shockers have touted throughout their Final Four run: We’re not a Cinderella, we’re just good. Louisville was just better, as the most dominant team in the country should be.
Questionable Call of the Night. Officiating had already consumed much of the pre-Final Four media spotlight – the Ed Rush Pac 12 bounty-in-jest scandal was quite enough. The third-party drama spilled into Saturday night’s games, naturally, and with several questionable calls speckled throughout – Brandon Triche’s late charge, the no-call on Tim Hardaway Jr.’s driving layup, the countless soft whistles on lane penetration – picking out a despicable winner was harder than you might suspect. The clip linked below shifted the final outcome in a more obvious way than any other officiating gaffe. After missing a free throw, Louisville’s Luke Hancock instinctively latches on to Ron Baker’s clearly possessed rebound. His claim to possession – a prerequisite for any jump-ball call – was as strong as Jim Boeheim’s post-timeout play diagramming skills were intuitive (hehe). That was more than enough evidence for the official, apparently. A jump-ball was whistled, Louisville regained possession, and Wichita State was robbed of a golden opportunity to close a three-point gap in a one-possession game. The men in black-and-white screwed this one up, and honestly, I was sort of hoping the most important three games of the season would come and go without some kind of officiating controversy. The season has been littered with zebra missteps; is a cleanly officiated culmination to an otherwise brilliant hoops season too much to ask?
Final Four All-Americans.
- Luke Hancock, Louisville (NPOY) – With no conventional guard help available off the bench, Hancock stepped right up and dropped 20 points to power Louisville’s big rally.
- Mitch McGary, Michigan – The statline was merely pedestrian – 10 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and I mean that totally as a compliment. The bar has been raised for Michigan’s freshman big man, and 10 points and 12 rebounds is just, eh – we expect more.
- Tim Henderson, Louisville – Two key second-half threes from Henderson stabilized Louisville during a thorny second half.
- Glenn Robinson III, Michigan – Efficient offense was in short supply Saturday night. Not for Robinson, who finished with 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting. He also added six rebounds, five of them offensive.
- Caris LeVert, Michigan – 21 quality minutes off the bench was just what the doctor ordered for a Wolverines offense that, after a while, looked just plain exhausted. LeVert (8 points) nearly quadrupled his 2.2 ppg scoring average.
Tweet of the Night. If Louisville does go on to win the national championship, Pitino will need to repay Henderson for shooting the Cardinals into the final. Maybe offer a free trip to his September Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The horse-naming will have to wait. Why? Pitino won’t want to change the way he treats or names his horses, not when “Goldencents,” the coach’s prized three-year old colt (Pitino is a co-owner), won the Santa Anita Derby Saturday by 11/4 lengths and will enter as a real contender to win the Kentucky Derby a month from now.