Kentucky fans may want to forget, but the Final Four is rapidly approaching with one of the worst possible scenarios potentially coming to fruition. Of course, I’m talking about Louisville being the overwhelming favorite to take home their first national title since 1986. You probably don’t want it to happen, but unfortunately, I think Kentucky fans must come to terms with the fact that Louisville is probably going to cut down the nets. While the Cardinals are heavy favorites, believe it or not, there’s still basketball to be played. Michigan, Syracuse, and Wichita State have all been playing high level basketball over the past number of weeks and certainly have a shot at taking home the hardware if things fall their way. Even though our Wildcats are noticeably absent from college basketball’s greatest spectacle for the first time in two seasons, here’s a preview of all four teams and what to watch for as a neutral observant.
The 9th seeded Shockers of Wichita State are the Cinderella of the remaining four teams. You may knock them for their seed, but their path to the Final Four was as tough as anyone’s. Gregg Marshall’s squad took down 1-seed Gonzaga, 2-seed Ohio State, and computer metric titan, Pittsburgh along their unlikely path to the Final Four. Marshall’s team also defeated opponents by an average of 10.5 points per game, the smallest margin of anyone entering Atlanta. Their offense is headlined by 6-foot-8 Cleanthony Early. On the season, the junior forward is averaging 13.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 0.6 assists per game. He also obtains these numbers efficiently, shooting 79% from the charity stripe, 53% from the interior, and 31% from the perimeter. If you want to draw comparisons to a player, think of Early as Wichita’s version of Deshaun Thomas. Though not a perfect comparison due to fouling, Early compiled very comparable numbers to the similarly sized Thomas over the course of the season. The Shocker’s defensive rebounding is the strength of the team, allowing opponents to pull down 26% of potential offensive boards (11th nationally). This is a total team effort as 6 players on their roster pull down over three rebounds per game. While this squad has certainly proved they can play with anyone, Ken Pomeroy’s numbers give Wichita a 17% chance of advancing to the championship game, so it would be (brace yourself) “shocking” if they were to advance.
Fresh off an absolute dismantling of Florida, John Beilein’s Michigan squad enters the Final Four with an average margin of victory of 15.5 points per game during the NCAA Tournament. While the Wolverines are a shaky defensive squad at times, their offense may be enough to overcome that issue. According to Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, Michigan is the most efficient offense in the nation, scoring 121.9 points per 100 possessions. An offense this efficient is always accomplished by the work of many, but they’re led by National Player of the Year candidate, Trey Burke. On the year, Burke is totaling 18.8 points, 6.8 assists, and 3.1 rebounds per game. His percentages are off the charts as well, shooting 38% from three, 51% from two, and 81% from the line. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Burke is his ability to maintain possession relative to how much he handles the ball. While using nearly 30% of team possessions (Russ Smith-like), he only loses the rock 2.2 times per game, which ensures Michigan maximizes every possession. While the Wolverines can score, their defense is a bit suspect, ranking 35th nationally in terms of efficiency. They don’t do much at an elite level, but they do rank 1st nationally in defensive free throw rate, meaning Syracuse isn’t likely to get free points from the charity stripe. Despite their defensive numbers, the Wolverines are given a 51% chance of reaching the finals.
Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange rolled into the Final Four with an average margin of victory of 20 points per game during the NCAA Tournament. Whereas their next opponent, Michigan, got to Atlanta with offense, the Orange got here with tenacious defense. As it stands, Syracuse is ranked 5th overall in defensive efficiency according to Kenpom.com, allowing only 85.8 points per 100 possessions. This is solely due to the famed 2-3 zone which forces opponents to take poor shots and turn the ball over at a high rate. In fact, they rank 4th and 19th in those categories respectively. Steals aren’t the only way they defend either, as is Boeheim tradition, Syracuse is ranked 1st nationally in block percentage, swatting nearly 20% of opponent two point attempts. As is common with shot blocking teams, Syracuse possesses tremendous length in the frontcourt with seven players over 6-foot-6. While not the team’s leading scorer, 6-foot-6 guard, Michael Carter-Williams, is the straw that stirs the Orange’s drink. In 2013, the sophomore averaged 12.1 points, 7.4 assists, and 4.9 rebounds per game. While not a very efficient shooter from anywhere on the floor, his passing and general awareness on the court guides their offense. According to Pomeroy’s numbers the Orange have a 49% chance of advancing to the finals.
Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals are the overwhelming favorite to cut down the nets in Atlanta, and for good reason. For starters they’re on a 14-game win streak dating back to February 14th. Secondly, they’ve beat their first four NCAA opponents by an average of 21.7 points per game. Such a convincing margin is accomplished with the best defense since efficiency metrics began in 2003. According to Pomeroy’s numbers, the Cardinals allow a smothering 81.6 points per 100 possessions. It’s never been a secret, but such a defense is done with immense pressure from all positions of the floor. Currently, the Cardinals force turnovers on 27.5% of opponent possessions, behind only Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams. If opponents somehow make it past their pressure and into the lane, they’ll be greeted by tremendous rim protector, Gorgui Dieng (2.5 blocks per game). If you were to tell me one year ago that Louisville’s offense could be described as a “pick your poison” type of offense, I would’ve openly mocked you, however, they’ve become just that in the span of one season. Whereas last year’s Final Four team was ranked 103rd in offense, this year’s team is ranked 5th, speaking volumes of Rick Pitino’s coaching job. If you choose to put defensive resources on Russ Smith (18.9 ppg), you open yourself up to the distributing ability of Peyton Siva, which is a highly dangerous strategy. In order to beat the Cardinals, one must reduce them into a half-court perimeter shooting competition as they only connect on 32.8% of threes. Of course, this may not even be enough as their defense is just too tough. The numbers say Louisville is the runaway favorite for the title, and it’s difficult to disagree.