Most of the Little Guys have gone home. Only Wichita State is up past its basketball bedtime.
The other three teams headed to Atlanta for the Final Four, Louisville, Syracuse, and Michigan, next weekend aren’t wearing glass sneakers. They have top hats and coat tails.
In a season defined by unpredictability and instability at the top, the Final Four has restored some order and given extended life to the last breath of the dying Big East. Louisville and Michigan were both among the five teams ranked No. 1 this season. Syracuse spent time in the top five.
The Sweet 16 started with No. 12, No. 13, and No. 15 seeds, but the ninth-seeded Shockers, who probably have orange pieces of synthetic rubber under their fingernails they held on for dear life so tight in the West Regional against Ohio State, are the lone gate-crasher.
It would be the ultimate stunner if coach Gregg Marshall and Wichita State, the first Missouri Valley Conference team to reach the Final Four since Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979, walked away as the national champions. They would be the lowest-seeded champs ever. Villanova was a No. 8 seed when it shocked Georgetown in 1985. A more predictable ending to this capricious season is on tap.
What a great ride this NCAA Tournament has been. The final straightaway on the road to crowning a national champion should be no different. Let’s take a look at the Final Four matchups.
Louisville vs. Wichita State — Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed, draws David. Cleanthony Early, Carl Hall, Malcolm Armstead, and Co. already have dispatched one No. 1 seed this tournament, taking out Gonzaga. But Rick Pitino’s Cardinals are an entirely different ballgame. Behind its suffocating full-court press, Louisville has won its tournament games by an average of 21.75 points, including dispatching a very good Duke team, 85-63, in the Midwest Regional final Sunday.
This looks like Little Ricky’s tournament to win. His lightning-quick backcourt of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith creates a virtual red carpet to the rim. Big man Gorgui Dieng guards the basket like a Secret Service agent and is a better offensive player than he looks. Pitino’s team might not have a bunch of future NBA stars, but it does have depth, size, athleticism, and toughness.
The only downside for the Cardinals is that they’ll be without reserve guard Kevin Ware, who suffered a gruesome broken leg in the victory over Duke. There is no way to know unequivocally if Ware’s injury was caused in part by the elevated court the NCAA uses inside cavernous venues that were meant for football. But it was pretty obvious that Ware tried to stop himself short as he flew out of bounds trying to block a shot. If he didn’t, he could have tumbled off the end of the earth, er, court at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Memo to the NCAA: You should care more about the health and well-being of your “student-athletes” than whether fans in Section ZZ, Row Y have a view of the action. End the elevated courts.
Michigan vs. Syracuse — The last time the Wolverines were in the Final Four they had the Fab Five. That 1993 appearance is most memorable for Chris Webber’s brainlock in the title game vs. North Carolina.
This is a classic contrast in styles. John Beilein’s free-flowing, Feng shui, fire-away offense vs. the personal space-violating, style-cramping, claustrophobic 2-3 zone defense of ’Cuse coach/curmudgeon Jim Boeheim, coaching in his fourth Final Four.
Led by dynamic point guard Trey Burke, the best college player in the country (note: I said college player, not NBA prospect), the Wolverines are averaging 78.8 points per game in the tournament. Syracuse is holding teams to 45.8 points per game in the tournament and has allowed just one club, California, to reach 60.
Michigan seems like a Team of Destiny after its remarkable Sweet 16 comeback against Kansas, trailing by 10 with 2:19 to go before Burke forced overtime with the tournament’s signature shot, a 3-pointer that should have carried postage it was delivered from so far away. Poor Florida never had a shot Sunday against Tom Brady’s alma mater, which opened the South Regional final game with a 13-0 blitz.
We’re a parochial sports town, so if you’re looking for local rooting interest besides TB12 then don some orange. Syracuse has Hamilton’s Michael Carter-Williams as its starting point guard and catalyst. His mother, Mandy Carter-Zegarowski, is the superb girls’ coach at Ipswich High. You’ve probably heard how she had to conceal her anguish from Carter-Williams when she learned the family’s house in Hamilton had burned down during Syracuse’s second-round game with Cal.
But Carter-Williams isn’t just a sob story. If you remember Shaun Livingston, the fourth pick in the 2004 NBA draft, before his career-altering torn ACL, that’s a good comparable to Carter-Williams.
If the game comes down to gene pool, Michigan gets the edge. It has Glenn Robinson III, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Jon Horford, brother of Al and son of Tito.
National championship game — It would be so fitting if the title game ended up as a paean to the soon-to-be departed Big East, with a matchup of Louisville and Syracuse. Somewhere Dave Gavitt would be smiling. It would be the fourth meeting between the teams this season.
But before the tournament, I predicated Louisville vs. Indiana. I’m still going with a Louisville vs. a Big Ten team final, except it’s Michigan.
Like him or loathe him, Pitino has done a masterful job. It’s amazing that the slick-talking, 3-point enabling coach who took Providence to a Final Four is now considered an “old-school” college coach.
To paraphrase Pitino from his ill-fated stint with the Celtics, Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson aren’t walking through that door for Michigan.
The national title stays in the state of Kentucky, but it’s in Louisville instead of Lexington.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.