By now we’ve become acquainted with the teams in the Final Four, but now let’s take a closer look at the matchups for the national semi-finals:
LOUISVILLE VS. WICHITA STATE
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Both of these teams base everything off their defense. However, they do it in different ways and for different purposes. Louisville uses its press to speed teams up, get them off their rhythm, and force turnovers that they’re able to quickly turn into points at the other end. Meanwhile, Wichita State plays tough defense as a way to slow the game down so that they can compensate for a mediocre offense and win low-scoring games.
The Shockers were a bit lucky during their second-round win over Gonzaga, as they made shots and were able to win a game that got into the 70’s. Generally, Wichita State doesn’t fair well if their opponent reaches 65 points, but they escaped against Gonzaga and Ohio State because they shot well above their season average from the perimeter and made their free throws. The Shockers aren’t too turnover prone, and they handled VCU’s “havoc” defense early in the season, but that was a long time ago, and they haven’t seen anything close to Louisville’s pressure defense since. It would be helpful if Wichita State could knock down perimeter shots the way they have in their last three games, but it’s not nearly as important as valuing the basketball, avoiding turnovers, and taking smart shots that won’t lead to Louisville getting fast-break points, as there’s little chance of the Shockers running with the Cardinals.
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One area where the Shockers may have an advantage is rebounding. Outside of Gorgui Dieng and freshmen Montrezl Harrell, the Cardinals don’t have much size, nor do they have guards that rebound well. Meanwhile, the Shockers have good size in their frontcourt and guards that help out on the boards. If Wichita State can establish their presence on the boards early on it will help keep Louisville from getting out in transition, and it may help the Shockers score second-chance points, which could be a critical part of this game.
As for the Cardinals, they haven’t lost a game in nearly two months, so there’s a lot that they’re doing right, although they really haven’t been challenged much the past two weekends. Defensively, the Cardinals should keep the pressure on all game, and unless the Shockers are either extraordinarily lucky or play incredibly well that pressure should catch up to them sooner or later. Offensively, there’s a little less certainty for the Cardinals. The Shockers won’t be afraid to get physical with point guard Peyton Siva and play tight defense on him, and he’ll have to prove that he can handle that without turning the ball over. The Cardinals may also have an issue going inside against a big Wichita State frontcourt, which could make them reliant on their outside shooting.
On the game’s biggest stage, expect Russ Smith to be proactive offensively, look for his shot, and try to make plays. If Smith plays well and is the Cardinal’s leading scorer at the end of the night, it’ll be a good sign, but if Smith struggles shooting the ball and makes bad decisions, which he’s been known to do on occasion, it may do Louisville more harm than good. Of course, if the Shockers can’t handle Louisville’s press, it’s all a moot point, because if the Cardinal’s defense is at the top of its game they should steamroll Wichita State the way they have every other team in this tournament.
MICHIGAN VS. SYRACUSE
This game will ultimately be a matchup between Michigan’s high-powered offense and Syracuse’s stifling defense. The Orange just faced a similar team in Indiana, a team that will stretch the floor with a lot of perimeter shooters, but that has one player that can score in the post. Syracuse handled the Hoosiers a lot better than anyone could have predicted they would, but Michigan’s guards are bigger and more athletic than Indiana’s guards; however, the Wolverine’s post player Mitch McGary isn’t as experienced and skilled as Indiana’s Cody Zeller.
Michigan has five players that shoot 33% or better from beyond the arc, but they have yet to see a zone as active as the 2-3 zone Syracuse has played to near perfection over the past four games. They are also not accustomed to seeing the kind of size, length, and athleticism that Syracuse has at the guard and forward positions, which deceives teams into thinking that passing and shooting lanes are open, when they’re really not. Syracuse is not afraid of extending their zone and pushing the forwards up high on the wings, which will make it imperative for McGary to score in the post in one-on-one situations against the Orange’s centers, who are both quality defenders. Aside from McGary being able to score from the post, it’s also important that Trey Burke be able to penetrate the gaps in the zone. Syracuse’s guard are long and athletic, not to mention bigger than Burke, so it’s not a given that he’ll be able to do so. If Burke is able get penetration, he’ll have to pass the ball to open shooters on the perimeter if the defense constricts, but if the Orange defense sticks to their shooters he’ll have to finish at the rim against Syracuse’s shot-blocking centers.
The other end of the floor won’t be quite as compelling, but it will play a factor in who wins. Syracuse hasn’t exactly been praised for their offense this season, but Michigan isn’t recognized for its great defense either. Burke has received a lot of publicity this season as being the best point guard in the country, but Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams has played brilliantly in this tournament and he may be just as tough for Michigan to contain as Burke will be tough for the Orange to contain. In addition to Carter-Williams continuing to play at a high level, the Orange will also need a big game out of either Brandon Triche or James Southerland, preferably both, as at least one of them should create a mismatch for the Wolverine’s defensively, especially if they try to stack their lineup with shooters even more than usual.
In the postseason, the Syracuse offense has generally played well enough to win, assuming they get a strong effort out of their defense, but if the Orange can knock down shots from the perimeter and have an above-average game offensively, they’ll be nearly impossible to beat. That being said, Syracuse does not want to get into a track meet with the Wolverines, as their offense is just not reliable enough to outscore Michigan in a high-scoring up-tempo game. However, if Syracuse plays defensively as well as it has all tournament, they should be able to score enough points against Michigan’s defense to win.