With the Final Four set to begin Saturday night in Atlanta, former Maryland coach Gary Williams believes one team stands out above the rest.
“Louisville, in my mind, is the clear favorite,” Williams said.
The Cardinals seem to be the consensus heavyweight going into Saturday’s games, where they will face the surprise of the tournament Wichita State Shockers in the early game.
Syracuse will face Michigan in the later Final Four game, a battle of college basketball titans with different styles of play.
Outside of a gruesome injury to Kevin Ware, Louisville has faced little adversity in their run to the Final Four. Winners of four games by an average of almost 22 points, the depth, defensive pressure and high-octane offense of the Cardinals has overwhelmed opponents.
Williams even believes dealing with the devastating broken leg by Ware will be a boost for Louisville.
He explained that at times a heavy favorite like Louisville would overlook the upstart Shockers, instead looking ahead to the possible opponent in the national title game.
“Even though it’s the Final Four, in the back of their minds they’re thinking about Syracuse or Michigan,” Williams said. “That injury can keep them focused on the task at hand. You can tell how much they like Ware, that’s the way to help Ware, win the thing.”
For Wichita State, this tournament has been a remarkable run.
“They showed that in a three-week period you can do a lot of damage if you’re playing well,” Williams said.
The No. 9 seed from the West region, the Shockers reached the Final Four by beating No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 Ohio State.
“What Wichita did really well, they got the ball inside early,” Williams said, expressing his surprise the Shockers beat the Buckeyes.
A strong rebounding team, Wichita State did not have a particularly strong shooting team for much of the season, but in the tournament the Shockers have shot well.
“Teams get hot,” Williams said. “If you’re Wichita State, I never played a game where I didn’t think I could win. That’s what all good teams do.”
While Wichita State comes into the game a heavy underdog to Louisville, the Syracuse-Michigan matchup leaves people evenly split. Vegas says Michigan is a slight favorite, but those numbers could change by Saturday night.
Williams thinks that game could be the best of the tournament. For Syracuse, a low-scoring, defensive game will probably result in a win, Williams explained, while the Wolverines will want to speed up the pace.
“If you’re going against a really good defense, you try to get into transition. This is the case for Michigan,” Williams said. “If it comes down to a shooting contest, I would favor Michigan.”
But that doesn’t mean Williams thinks Michigan will win the game. The famed Syracuse 2-3 zone is tough to crack, and if they can slow All-America Trey Burke, the Orangemen could win this game.
“The greatest thing Syracuse does is their ability to keep you from penetrating,” Williams said. “If you’re not making shots, you’re kind of done offensively. Syracuse really is able to stop the ball one-on-one in their zone.”
Burke’s shooting prowess will determine much of the game. In shutting down Indiana, Syracuse’s big guards proved too much for Indiana’s smaller guards.
“If Burke can penetrate, that’s a problem,” Williams said. “He’s such a great passer that he can find guys. Burke also has great range.”
While Burke and backcourt mates Nik Stauskas and Tim Hardaway Jr. are not big guys, their shooting range can change the dynamic of the Orange zone.
If the Michigan shooters can extend the Syracuse zone, not allowing the defenders to crowd along the 3-point line like they did against Indiana, the Wolverine offense could have success.
Continuing the cat-and-mouse of this game, Syracuse should be able to attack Michigan offensively the same way they did against Indiana.
Bigger, more physical players like Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams can back smaller defenders down, attacking the rim and generating offense. The same formula worked against the Hoosiers undersized guards.
“The guards for Syracuse are just overwhelming at times,” Williams said.
One player that could make a big difference in the game is Michigan’s Mitch McGary. A freshman big man, McGary is enjoying a breakout run in the NCAA Tournament.
A key to battling Syracuse’s matchup zone is an able passer with a big body positioned in the high post. It appears McGary could be the player to fit that role.
“McGary is going to be a key, but just remember, everybody thought [Indiana’s Cody] Zeller would be that guy too,” Williams said. “McGary is very physical. What gets overlooked is the physicality of Syracuse’s inside people too.”
Upsets are what makes the NCAA Tournament so special, but generally, the best teams win in the later rounds.
Saturday night could follow suit, or like much of the 2013 Tournament, the surprises may continue.