COLUMBIA, Mo. - The end of the college basketball season is here. This weekend, the final four teams left standing will attempt to be the last one on the Atlanta dance floor Monday night. Let's go In the Zone with a Final Four preview.
1) Louisville is the favorite to win it all. Rick Pitino's Cardinals are the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, and they've played as such through the first four games of the dance.
Louisville is winning its tournament games by an eye-popping average of 21.8 points per game.
History is also on Louisville's side. Since the field expanded to 64 teams 28 years ago, a No. 1 seed has won the tournament 17 times. That's a healthy 61 percent clip. The Cardinals are the only No. 1-seed left standing in the Final Four.
2) Of course the Cardinals calling card is their pressure defense. Louisville is generating an average of 18 turnovers a game in the tournament. Opponents are shooting just 42 percent against Pitino's defense.
What you may not know, however, is that Gregg Marshall's Wichita State defense has, shockingly, (wink, wink), been even better.
Wichita State has held opponents to 34.3 percent shooting from the field. That's an absurdly low number. And it's not like the Shockers have done this against woefully inefficient offenses either. Here are the team's they've beaten in the dance and their national ranking in field goal percentage per game
Louisville and Wichita State will be a fantastic defensive matchup. I hope you don't like points.
3) One guy who can score on anybody is Louisville guard Russ Smith.
Smith is an absolute blur with the ball in his hands. He's only 6-foot-1, but he's shooting 54.1 percent from the floor in the tournament while averaging 26 points per game; he's scored at least 20 points in all four games Louisville has played.
When the Cardinals beat Mizzou way back in November at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, Smith actually made Phil Pressey look slow. I was not surprised one bit to learn Smith is a Brooklyn-bred point guard. His game is all about that.
4) Wichita State, however, is a fun Missouri Valley "Cinderella" to root for. Check out this excerpt from The Associated Press previewing Saturday's matchup:
"Wichita State has one player, Carl Hall, who salvaged his career after working in a light bulb factory and two more, Ron Baker and Malcolm Armstead, who paid their way to come to school and started on the team as walk-ons. Its coach has invited fans into the locker room after big wins. Yes, this is a school with all the makings of a team the entire country could get behind."
My pick: Louisville 61, Wichita State 45
5) On the other side of the bracket, the matchup is a little more exciting. Michigan's Trey Burke was just named the AP Player of the Year. He also is the latest winner of the Wooden Award.
Burke is averaging 15.5 points per game and 7.8 assists per game as the quarterback of the Wolverines attack. And of course, he has endeared himself forever to Missouri Tiger fans with his legendary 34-foot pull-up three against Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen that sent the game to overtime. Michigan, of course, ultimately won the game.
6) Freshman forward Mitch McGary has emerged as a game-changer for Michigan coach John Beilein this tournament.
McGary averaged just 19 minutes per game during the regular season. So far this tournament, McGary has been on the floor almost 30 minutes a game. Naturally, his numbers have gone up, too.
In the regular season McGary averaged 7.4 points per game and 6.2 rebounds per game.
In the NCAA Tournament, McGary is averaging 17.5 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game.
Burke may be the best player on the Wolverines (and perhaps in the country), but McGary's play might be the biggest barometer of success for the maize and blue.
7) Of course, any time the Syracuse Orangemen are playing, the talk turns to Jim Boeheim's vaunted 2-3 zone defense. It, indeed, has been as suffocating as ever this tournament.
Syracuse is holding opponents to a microscopic 28.9 percent shooting from the field and 15.4 percent from beyond the arc. That's ridiculous.
Syracuse has held two of its opponents under 40 points in this tournament. I'm serious.
Michigan, however, will be by far the best three-point shooting team Syracuse has seen. The Wolverines have the shooters, and the quick triggers, to bust the zone. No team in the tournament field has attempted more than Michigan's 82 shots from three. The Wolverines have hit on a very healthy 40.2 percent of those shots.
With McGary working the high post, and shooters like Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas surrounding him, the Wolverines have the weapons to punch holes in Boeheim's defense.
8) Syracuse is proving once again, especially in this day and age of sports, that little matters about how you play and/or finish in the regular season. It's all about getting hot at the right time.
The Orange lost four of their final five regular season games, including a 22-point blowout loss to pre-tournament darling Georgetown -- you know, the team that joined Mizzou in infamy as a No. 2-seed that lost to a No. 15-seed in the opening second round. The Hoyas were the first to fall victim to Dunk City and Florida Gulf Coast.
Well now, Syracuse is turning up the heat on D and riding their efforts on that side of the floor into the Final Four. Again, most championships these days are not won by the best team, but the team that's playing best at the right time.
My pick: Michigan 56 Syracuse 58
Monday night in Atlanta, Louisville cuts down the nets. Final score: Louisville 64, Syracuse 51
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