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