Wichita State will look to continue its historic run in the tournament by doing something that only a handful of teams have done–beat a #1 seed in the Final Four as a lower seed. Those that have done it are among the most memorable and famous upsets in college basketball history: NC State (6 seed) over Houston in 1983, Villanova (8 seed) over Georgetown in 1985, and Kansas (6 seed) over Oklahoma in 1988.
That’s the full list of every team seeded 6 or lower that has defeated a 1 seed in the Final Four, since the tournament began seeding. It has never happened in the National Semifinal (Michigan State over Wisconsin in 2000, and North Carolina over Houston in 1982 were the only previous opportunities).
So with an eye toward history, we should ask ourselves how this Wichita State team can join those ranks and pull the large upset (point spread in the 10 to 11 range entering the game). Louisville is the best defensive team in the country, using its perimeter pressure to generate steals and turnovers, and relying on Gorgui Dieng on the back end to erase shots at the rim. The one area of vulnerability for Louisville is offensive boards for the opponent. Louisville ranks only 236th in the country in defensive rebound rate. Of course, opponents have a hard time getting shots up against Louisville to begin with.
That though, is the one area where Wichita State has an edge. The Shockers are in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates. They will need to neutralize Louisville’s offensive rebounding when they force the Cardinals into half court offense, and then hurt them with second chance opportunities when they themselves gets shots up. Malcolm Armstead will have the primary task of withstanding the pressure. If Wichita State can limit easy scores for Louisville by avoiding the turnovers that lead to transition, and get shots up they will have a chance. Keeping Carl Hall out of foul trouble is another necessity if this game is to remain close.
If Wichita State can do those things, and the three point shooting (something that Wichita State has been much better in the tournament, with Ron Baker in the lineup) goes in the Shockers’ favor, then this team can join the short list of massive upsets. Turnovers, forced shots and no second chance opportunities, and Louisville will roll.
The second semifinal is only the eleventh National Semifinal since 1978 that does not feature either a #1 or #2 seed. It is the first ever matchup between two #4 seeds in a Final Four. The game is a contrast of styles, between a team that has been among the nation’s best offenses, run by the National Player of the Year in Trey Burke, and a team that has reached the Final Four thanks to its defense. These teams are about as even as it gets. Both very well could have been #1 seeds with about two weeks to go in the regular season. Both fell to #4 seeds with some late losses, but rebounded and have proven momentum is largely just a word when it comes to predicting outcomes.
Michigan rated first in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive ratings, and will need that offense to show up in force against Syracuse’s zone. I expect the NBA offspring on this roster, the wing players in Tim Hardaway and Glenn Robinson, to operate at the top of the key a fair amount of the time against the zone. We saw Cody Zeller really struggle in that spot. I think they need a quicker player who can get into the lane, while still knocking down that 15 foot shot. I also suspect that even against the zone, we will see some high ball screens from Mitch McGary to free up Burke. The question is whether Michigan (the best team at the country at avoiding turnovers thanks to Burke) can handle the length, and whether the shooters like Nic Stauskas can hurt the zone like the Indiana shooters failed miserably at doing.
At the other end, it is Michael Carter-Williams, and aggressiveness to the rim that will be key. I have a feeling that this game will largely rise and fall on whether Michigan can keep Syracuse’s athletes from generating second chance points when they attack the rim. Michigan will need to be sound and collectively focused on controlling the glass.
Predictions: Wichita State keeps it closer than the point spread, and it is a game in the second half, but Louisville wins in the end. Michigan over Syracuse in a close game that has the potential to be a great one.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]