WICHITA STATE (9) vs. LOUISVILLE (1)
Can the run continue for the No. 9 seeded Shockers? They beat the one and two seeds in the West region so you can’t say their Final 4 appearance is undeserved. In a year full of upsets, Wichita State may be pulling off the best run of all. They will get their toughest task of the season with Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
While Wichita State’s run has been surprising, Louisville’s play has been just as good while it was expected. They have run out to big leads on all four of their opponents and currently have a 14-game winning streak. Their last win came by 22 points over a 30-5 Duke Blue Devils team that was supposed to be a real task. Instead, the Cardinals pounded on them in the second half scoring 50 points and looked close to unstoppable.
The Shockers haven’t played a team like Louisville yet as their matchups have been pretty kind to them. Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed, but they weren’t an outstanding squad by any means. Wins over Pittsburgh and Ohio State were impressive, but both of those offenses played slow-it-down basketball and helped Wichita State control the game in the half court. Louisville will not be the same as they’ll put pressure on the ball at all times and love running the floor with Peyton Siva and Russ Smith.
The guard play will be super important in this game for the Shockers. Malcolm Armstead, Tekele Cotton and Fred Van Vleet have to take care of the ball. If they don’t, the Cardinals could win this game on transition alone. Armstead struggled against the Buckeyes and Aaron Craft only shooting 6-of-21 from the field, but he has been their best play overall in this tournament. The defense of the guards will also be key because Siva and Smith love driving to the hoop and so far, no one has been able to stop them. Against Duke, the two combined for 39 points, but zero three-pointers. They both had numerous ‘And One’s’ and free layups, especially in the second half.
Possibly an even harder task for Wichita State will be the frontcourt where Gorgui Dieng lives. Carl Hall’s athleticism has been trouble for most of the bigs he’s faced in the tourney so far, but Dieng will be something else. Not only does he supply athleticism, but he’s also three inches taller than Hall. The Cardinals get the advantage there, but Cleanthony Early vs. Chane Behanan might be where the Shockers force their offense. Early went to work on Deshaun Thomas last game and will likely try to do the same against Behanan. His length, quickness and shooting ability will be a problem for the 250-pound Behanan to keep up with. Plus, while Early gives up size defensively, he has the length to be able to alter anything Behanan puts up.
If WSU can’t capitalize on that matchup, they’ll need another great shooting performance, similar to that of the Gonzaga game when they hit five straight three-pointers late in the second half. Louisville just contained Duke to four made threes, so you can already see how hard that’s going to be. Whether it’s Ron Baker, Cotton or Van Vleet, one of them has to get going from long range.
After the dismantling of Duke, the bookmakers put Louisville as a 10-point favorite over Wichita State and it’s staying around there. That’s a respectable line just because of how well the Cardinals are playing right now and as seen with the matchups, not a whole lot points in the Shockers favor. While they have held every opponent thus far to under 38 percent field goal shooting, Louisville is another story. They have a full lineup to worry about which brings easy buckets and open shooters. The Shockers will need to continue that defensive prowess to go along with some hot shooting to keep up with Louisville. Otherwise, the score could look very similar to the Duke game.
Prediction: Louisville wins 68-61
SYRACUSE (4) vs. MICHIGAN (4)
While their Elite 8 games weren’t all that fun to watch, each of these teams proved their dominance over their respective regions with convincing wins. On the heels of a come from behind overtime win over Kansas, Michigan destroyed Florida from the start with a 13-0 run at the beginning of the game. The Wolverines are firing on all cylinders and will be a scary team to face. Syracuse may be equally scary with how well their defense is playing after shutting down Indiana to 50 points and Marquette to 39, as they swept through the East region. It’s going to be quite the showdown in Atlanta.
Michigan’s offense is playing as well as anyone’s has all season as they’ve averaged 78.8 points in their four tournament games. With games against Kansas and Florida, two of the best rated defenses in the country, that’s really impressive. Syracuse did the same thing to their opponents except on the defensive end allowing just 45.8 points per game in the tourney. One of those wins included Indiana who had one of the best and most consistent offenses all season. So, what’s going to happen when these two powers meet? The bettors are leaning on the offensive side as the Wolverines come in as -2.5-point favorites.
The funny thing about Michigan’s run is that it isn’t even Trey Burke that’s been the main talking point. It’s been Mitch McGary who wasn’t even a starter during the regular season. McGary is now averaging a double-double and 30 minutes per game. His dominance in the paint has been a huge reason for the Wolverines success. As for Burke, he hasn’t been all that great shooting 35 percent from the field in four games (after he shot 46% during the regular season). Against the Orange zone, that will have to change because that’s how Michigan will beat it. Point guards that can pull up and shoot a mid-range jumper is what can hurt the zone. Neither Indiana nor Marquette had that kind of a player at the point. Burke fits the bill, but will also need help from his teammates.
Of course, it’s also going to help if Nik Stauskas is on fire again. He went 6-for-6 from outside against Florida which changed the entire game and how the Gators had to play defense. If Stauskas and Tim Hardaway Jr. are hitting their shots, it will be that much easier to open up the zone. That’s not a given for either player, as Hardaway only went 3-for-13 and Stauskas was struggling before that Florida game. If those two can’t hit open shots, their offense will have problems.
You can never really fully prepare for the Syracuse zone and then once you’re on the court, it’s completely different. Their length and intensity has been too much to handle for their previous opponents, even against Marquette, a team they already faced once this year.
If Michigan is hitting their shots, penetrating the zone and McGary is finding room to operate, the Syracuse offense will need to step up. They haven’t scored that much in their previous games mainly because they’ve had fewer possessions in their games. When opponents hold the ball for the entire shot clock, they don’t get as many chances as Michigan to score.
One thing the Orange will have to do is keep the ball safe. They’ve had a problem with that all season, but they only had six turnovers against Marquette which helped a lot in their win. Michael Carter-Williams is a handful to stop. When he’s driving, he’s at his best as he can either go for the layup or pass it out James Southerland and Brandon Triche for an open trey. But also, he isn’t Aaron Craft, so you have to guard his shot because he has been shooting well lately. Florida tried to use Erik Murphy’s size to their advantage against Michigan, but it backfired and he couldn’t hit a shot. Syracuse might do the same with James Southerland as he will likely get Glenn Robinson III or Nik Stauskas on him to start. Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita will play important roles as they will have to deal with McGary down low. Their main tasks will be not allowing McGary to get any open shots and staying tough on the boards.
This should be a very fun game to watch and hopefully will be closer than what we’ve seen so far. The Syracuse zone will get a real test with Burke and company, but Michigan will also have to stay strong on the defensive end as Syracuse is no slouch offensively.
Prediction: Syracuse wins 65-62