When the brackets came out on St. Patrick's Day, the first team listed was the overall number one seed, Louisville. As we made our way through the drawn out process of filling the field and getting the matchups, Michigan and Syracuse came up as four seeds. There wasn't much outrage about those teams. Syracuse limped into the Big East tournament and then was torched by Louisville in the final 15 minutes of the Big East title game. Michigan lost to lowly Penn State late in the B1G season and got torched by a bad-shooting Wisconsin team in the second half of the B1G quarters. Finally, Wichita State got a 9-seed after finishing 2nd in the Missouri Valley. Again, it's what they earned having some bad losses on their resumes.
Now, here we are heading into Final 4 weekend and these are the 4 teams. One team that has passed the eye test from the beginning even with their early hiccups in the Big East and 3 teams, that quite honestly, have looked like the 3 other best teams of this tournament.
The early tilt is Louisville-Wichita State. KenPom predictor has them the Cardinals a 10-point favorite with an 83% win probability. Without looking, I'd say if the Shockers were to pull off an upset, it'd be one of the great upsets in Final 4 history. As we know, the West bracket broke wide open, one of the reasons being Wichita's upset of Gonzaga. But Nic Reiner has an interesting blog post up at KenPom anout how difficult Wichita State's run was through the West. Wichita State beat 3 top 12 KenPom teams on their way to Atlanta. Now, I argue Pitt wasn't as good as the computer numbers say. I'll let smarter people tell me I'm wrong but the run and busted bracket in the West was a Wichita State doing in large part.
As for Louisville, they haven't had the toughest jaunt thus far but they've looked very impressive in getting to Atlanta. They destroyed a good Colorado State team and beat Oregon in the Sweet 16 by jumping out early and grinding out a workmanlike win in a game that was never in doubt. Like Wichita State, they were able to avoid a 4 or 5 in the Sweet 16. In the regional final, they tussled with Duke for about 25 minutes before running them off the court in one of the most impressive regional final showings in years.
Wichita State has been shooting the ball very well from deep in this run, bombing Gonzaga and then doing the same to Ohio State. Entering the tournament, the Shockers were 174th in the nation in shooting the 3. Louisville defends the 3 pretty well amongst the many things they do well on defense. Typically, Wichita State protects the ball but so did Colorado State. For the Shockers to have any chance at the upset, they'll have to make Louisville beat them in the half court. If Duke couldn't do it, I don't know how Wichita State does it.
The Pick: Louisville 74 Wichita State 57
The late game pits Syracuse against Michigan. On New Year's Day of this year, you could have seen this. On March 1st, not so much but here we are. And both teams have looked really good getting here. Syracuse has done it on the defensive end. First, they limited Montana to 34 points and then shut down Allen Crabbe and California. On the second weekend, they stifled one of the nation's best offenses in Indiana and embarrassed Marquette into their worst offensive performance in years. Their length and athleticism is freakish. They force teams to shoot 3's and teams shoot 40% of their shots that way but only make 28%. Marquette shot 25 3's last Saturday. They made 3. Syracuse has been dictating your shot selection this dance.
On the flip side has been Michigan. The Wolverines biggest question all season has been their defense. They're 35th in AdjustedD, so it's not as if they're deficient on defense but it's still a concern. In the tournament, they whipped South Dakota State and then ran all over VCU. For 37 minutes, it looked like Kansas would knock them off but in one of those great seminal March moments, Trey Burke became a March legend as the Wolverines erased an 8-point lead in the final 1:25 and won in overtime. On Sunday, Michigan waxed Florida behind Nik Stauskas rainbow jumpers and a brilliant defensive performance.
In 2010, Syracuse beat Michigan 53-51. That dropped John Beilein's record against Jim Boeheim to 0-10. Mitch McGary has been incredibly active in this run and Syracuse has a problem on the defensive glass. If McGary can stay out of foul trouble and remain active on the offensive glass, it'll give the Orange fits, think Davante Gardner at the BMOHarris BC. I think the other matchup to watch will be Trey Burke against Michael Carter-Williams. MCW has been very impressive for Syracuse since the start of the Big East tournament but is prone to occassional moments of bone-headed plays. Burke typically isn't. Michigan will also have to harass James Southerland. Teams get 3's off against Michigan even if they don't make a ton against them. Southerland is a different beast from deep than any the Wolverines have seen.
Syracuse has been so good at disrupting good looks yet teams have been trying to make 3's against them in March. Part of it is decisiveness by the offensive players. Michigan has shooters in Burke, Stauskas and Hardaway that catch and shoot. Of course, they have to make but if they don't, an active big man can get them some cheap buckets on rebounds. On defense, they need to harass Southerland and clean the glass. Syracuse is a great offensive rebounding team. It's their strongest attribute on offense. Michigan is good, not great on the defensive glass. This is a toss-up. KenPom has Michigan by 1 but it's basically 50/50.
The Pick: Syracuse 67 Michigan 65