#1 Louisville vs. #9 Wichita State – 6:09 p.m.
It’s David vs. Goliath in Saturday night’s opener. Wichita State hasn’t been getting respect from anyone all tournament long, so why would they get it now? Everyone was talking about how Pittsburgh could make a long run and matched up well with Gonzaga, but no one ever thought we’d see Wichita State here. Surprisingly, they’ve been here before — back in 1965. Wichita State actually had some good players back in the early ‘80s (old school NBA fans will remember the names Antonie Carr and Xavier McDaniel), but they couldn’t get back to the Final Four until now. Meanwhile, Rick Pitino’s Cardinals have been here back-to-back years. This time, however, they’ll only be content if they cut down the nets.
What to Watch for: How Wichita State deals with Louisville’s press
You knew this was coming. Louisville’s press frustrates the hell out of their opponents. It’s not the same type of press that you seem from VCU because the defensive pressure isn’t always so intense. It’s the kind of press that lulls you into sleep and strikes quickly. Wichita State is decent at not turning the ball over, but they can get loose at times, as was the case with 15 turnovers against Gonzaga. This defense is nothing you can practice for and nothing Wichita State has seen on its schedule this year. Duke did well this season not to turn the ball over and is a well-coached team, yet they completely fell apart against Louisville’s pressure. We’ll see how Wichita State does…
Player to Watch: Russ Smith
If you're a fan of playground basketball, then you're a fan of Smith. Smith's just having fun out there 95 percent of the time (he does something stupid five percent of the time and gets yelled at by Coach Rick Pitino) and it's a pleasure to watch. He's got the no-conscience scoring ability like a Jamal Crawford or J.R. Smith that gets fans out of their seats. He makes unorthodox body movements as he drives the lane that make it tough for defenders to not stay with him. (Just ask Duke’s Ryan Kelly who got into foul trouble last week because of it.) Wichita State does a good job on the defensive end, but they’ll have their work cut out for them against Smith.
Wichita State primarily uses six or seven players with other guys only getting a few minutes a game to fill the gaps. It’s truly a team effort, so it’s hard to find an unsung hero, but I’m going to elevate the profile of Malcolm Armstead for a second. While the return of Ron Baker has surely helped Wichita State’s run to the Final Four, it has been Armstead leading the charge. He’s scored 14 or more points in three of their four tournament games and he’s been hitting the boards extremely hard for a guy who’s only six-feet tall. He’ll need another good game if Wichita State is to have any chance on Saturday given that he’ll be the primary weapon against the Louisville pressure. Good luck to you, son.
The Vegas Line: Wichita State +10.5 over Louisville
Louisville’s going to win this game, but 10.5 is a lot of points for them to give up. The line definitely has a few points built in for the public perception of the #1 team in the country facing a #9 seed, but Wichita has proven they’re no joke with wins over Pittsburgh (who finished second in the Big East regular season), Gonzaga, La Salle, and Ohio State. Both teams play tight defense, so the likelihood of this game getting out of hand is not very good. There’s also no real statistical advantage favoring Louisville such as turnover or rebounding margin.
Final Score: Louisville 64 Wichita State 58
#4 Michigan vs. #4 Syracuse – Approx 8:49 p.m.
The late game on Saturday night is obviously the more compelling matchup of the two. Obviously CBS knows what they're doing to get the best out of their primetime ratings. It’s been 10 years since Syracuse made it to a Final Four. Carmelo Anthony isn’t walking through that door, so they’ve needed a full team effort to get here. Michigan made back-to-back Final Fours 20 years ago, but those were erased from the record books because of Chris Webber accepting money during that time. (We all remember they were there, so it doesn’t really matter.) New York City will be alive at the bars on Saturday night because of the heavy involvement of the two schools’ alumni in the area. (That’s most likely the reason someone in your NCAA pool was able to have two, if not three Final Four teams.) Hopefully not too many fights break out after the game.
What to Watch for: How Syracuse adjusts their 2-3 zone to Michigan's strengths
Michigan has the potential to kill a 2-3 zone. Just ask Billy Donovan how well it worked out for his Florida Gators last weekend. (Florida went to zone because they couldn't handle Michigan while playing man-to-man and then the zone worked out even worse for them.) Michigan has plenty of shooters and both Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III should be able to work the free throw line. Jim Boeheim refuses to ever switch to man defense, so how does he tweak his zone? Does he look to trap by the sideline? Does he sag the wing opposite Nick Stauskas to help in the lane and force a less proficient shooter to beat them? Or does Boeheim sit, watch, and do nothing as his zone gets eviscerated?
Player to Watch: Trey Burke
If you were expecting a player other than Burke, you haven't been watching the college basketball this season, let alone the NCAA tournament. Burke has found his inner Kemba Walker by leading the Wolverines to their first Final Four since 1993. It'll be interesting to see how he deals with the height and length of Syracuse's guards at the front of their zone to go along with stopping that same height on the defensive end. Whereas losing teams last weekend like Indiana and Florida lacked a player who could prevent his team from losing, Michigan can always fall back on Burke. NBA scouts are surely noticing.
Unsung Heroes: Rakeem Christmas and Bae Keita
We have two guys featured in this spot because they'll have to combine to defend a tall task (no pun intended) in dealing with Mitch McGary. Ask anyone who's watched Michigan play over the last month and they'll tell you McGary has been the difference. He's taken Michigan from being a good team to being a great team. He's full of energy and thankfully also possesses a good amount of skill. He'll be set to work the inside of the zone and attack the offensive glass. That's where the two-headed center from Syracuse comes in. They'll need to use their length and athletic ability to disrupt McGary's offense. And even though a zone doesn't give players strict man-marking responsibilities on the offensive glass, Christmas and Keita will have to always be aware of where McGary is to keep him off the offensive glass. They certainly have the capabilities to do it, but it's a question of will they do it.
The Vegas Line: Michigan -2.5 over Syracuse
I saw a few comments on Twitter where people were curious how Michigan could be a 2.5 point favorite over Syracuse, there was only a half a point difference in projected spreads if either faced Wichita State in the final. (Michigan was -5 and Syracuse was -4.5.) Reality doesn't take place in a vacuum. Michigan has a specific advantage against Syracuse due to their zone and Syracuse's refusal to leave the zone. They wouldn't have the same edge against Wichita State's tough man-to-man defense. I just can't see Michigan struggling on offense, especially because they don't turn the ball over. Syracuse likes to run off mistakes and they won't get those opportunities here. There's a major Xs and Os coaching edge in this game. Boeheim has won his whole career by recruiting great players and then letting them play. John Beilein always seems to make the sum better than its parts going back to his West Virginia days. Beilein will find the wrinkle necessary to take it.
Final Score: Michigan 72 Syracuse 65