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.
Another strong performance in an overall brilliant Tournament from McGary helped Michigan break through Saturday night (AP Photo).
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.
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