College Basketball Coverage: Final Four Preview
An up-and-down college basketball season where top teams treated the #1 spot like a hot potato reaches the Final Four in Atlanta with Louisville having emerged as a clear favorite. The Cardinals are only getting 2-3 odds to win the national championship. Is Rick Pitino that sure a bet to claim his second national championship and first with the Cards? Or are Michigan, Syracuse and sleeper Wichita, not getting enough love? In today’s college basketball coverage, we’ll first break down all four teams—their personnel and the road they took to get here, and then look at the specifics of Saturday’s national semi-final games.
Louisville—Pitino’s boys were highly regarded coming into the season and for the most part lived up to the hype throughout. The only non-conference loss was a close game to Duke, and they knocked off decent teams in Missouri, Memphis and Kentucky. The ‘Ville went on to share the Big East title (with Georgetown and Marquette).
The blip on the radar came in January when they lost three straight, a home defeat to Syracuse and road games at Villanova and Georgetown. Soon after, Louisville lost a five-overtime epic on a Saturday night in Notre Dame. But that was on February 9 and they haven’t lost since, including two revenge wins over the Irish. One of those came in the Big East tournament where the Cards steamrolled their way through New York with three wins by an average victory margin of 16 points. The NCAA Tournament has been a favorable draw, due mostly the advantages that come with being a 1-seed, but also because 12th-seeded Oregon played their way into the Sweet 16. Louisville dispatched the dark horses, then delivered a big-time revenge win over Duke in the regional final last Sunday.
Louisville is built on its backcourt of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. The former is the ballhandler, the latter the scorer. Gorgui Deng goes 6’11” in the post and averages 11 points/10 rebounds per game, making him the best pure post player left in the tournament. Luke Hancock can shoot the three-ball, Chane Behanan is a valuable complementary player on the wings and Wayne Blackshear is a star in waiting at the same spot. The Cards have a deserved reputation for lockdown defense, although the Siva/Smith backcourt is very small, at 6’0” and 6’1” respectively.
Wichita—The Shockers scored a non-conference win on the road at Virginia Commonwealth and beat Iowa, though they also lost to non-NCAA Tournament team Tennessee. Wichita then went 12-6 and finished second to Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference, a league that was very balanced top-to-bottom, with even last-place Southern Illinois winning six league games and finishing near the .500 mark. In fact, SIU was one of the teams to beat Wichita at the Shockers’ low point of the season, a three-game stretch that was sandwiched around Super Bowl Sunday. It includes losses to middle-of-the-pack teams in Northern Iowa and Evansville.
Creighton, with Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott, was Wichita’s sparring partner at the top all year, and though they split in the regular season, Wichita came up short in the conference race and again in the rubber game with the Bluejays in the final of the conference tournament. But though the Shockers were seeded lower than their conference rival (9th vs 7th) in the NCAAs, they got what most observers would consider a better draw. Wichita was able to beat suspect Gonzaga, while Creighton lost to Duke in the second round. Wichita got another break when LaSalle was the Sweet 16 opponent, and the Shockers then eliminated Ohio State in last Saturday’s regional final.
Wichita’s best players are at the forward spot, in Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall, who combine to average 27 points/12 rebounds per game. Malcolm Armstead is a good senior leader at the point and a respectable shooter inside the arc. What Wichita does not have is a true post player or a three-point shooter. They’re a team that has to win the old-fashioned way—counting by twos and creating transition opportunities on the defensive end.
Syracuse: Jim Boeheim has never been known for his rigorous non-conference schedules, but he step out and beat San Diego State to open this season, and also mixed in wins against tolerable opposition in Arkansas and Long Beach State. By Orange standards, that was breathtakingly tough (though as a Wisconsin football fan maybe I shouldn’t’ talk). What was disappointing was Syracuse’s play within the Big East. They struggled to an 11-7 record and fifth-place finish—Pitt nestled in between Syracuse and the tri-champs. The killer was a stretch where Syracuse lost four of five. None of the losses were bad—twice to Georgetown, once to Marquette, once to Louisville—but it did invite obvious questions about Syracuse’s ability to compete with the best teams.
Boeheim’s team started to answer those questions with a run to the Big East tournament final that included beating Georgetown. But the NCAA Tournament really put the questions to bed. Syracuse got a draw that was tough—they needed to beat 12th-seeded Cal in the northern California site of San Jose to advance out of the first weekend, then take out trendy national championship pick Indiana, then meet conference rival Marquette, who seemed to have everything going their way. The Orange survived Cal and trashed both IU and MU to get here for the first time since Boeheim won the 2003 national title with a one-and-done forward named Carmelo Anthony.
Syracuse is not an overwhelmingly talented team, nor are they deep. C.J. Fair and James Southerland are quality forwards, with Southerland’s three-point shooting being vital to the team’s success—in fact, his absence for a brief stretch during the regular season had a lot to do with the struggles in conference play. Michael Carter-Williams is a good point guard, able to distribute the ball and at 6’6” presents matchup problems for opposing defenses. Brandon Triche is a steady senior at the two-guard spot and also moves the ball well. Rakeem Christmas is a frontline player whose rebounding is mediocre, but whose wingspan makes him a good fit for the legendary Syracuse zone.
Michigan: The Wolverines were touted as a national championship contender from the outset and the non-conference season didn’t disappoint, as they rolled through Pitt, Kansas State, N.C. State and tacked on a win over Arkansas for good measure. The Big Ten season did disappoint though. The Wolverines went 12-6 and ended up fifth, although if not for a layup that rolled off the rim at the end of the season finale with Indiana, Michigan would have shared the conference championship. But they still lost their key road tests, including three in a four-game span in February, at Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State. And to solidify the road problems, the Wolverines inexplicably lost at Penn State.
Unlike Syracuse, Michigan didn’t show signs of life in their conference tournament. Wisconsin took them out in workmanlike fashion in the quarterfinals. But the Wolverines got some generosity from the Selection Committee with placement in Auburn Hills (home of the Detroit Pistons) for the first weekend. They took full advantage. Michigan beat a popular underdog in South Dakota State and red-hot Virginia Commonwealth. Then they went to Dallas, the same place the school’s football team went for an ignominious beatdown at the hands of Alabama to start last season. The basketball fortunes went better—Michigan beat the region’s #1 seed in Kansas and its betting-line favorite in Florida to advance to the Final Four.
Trey Burke is starting to pick up national Player of the Year honors, and while he’s not my pick, I’m not going to say I have a huge problem with this. Burke averages 19 points a game and distributes 7 assists, while shooting 46 percent from the floor and 39 percent behind the arc. Tim Hardaway Jr. is his running mate and operates with similar efficiency and at 15 ppg, almost as much production. Nik Stauskas, the freshman who was outstanding last weekend in Dallas, lights it up from trey range. The swing factors are the freshman forwards in Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. When they produce—even if it’s not points, they have to rebound—Michigan is perhaps the best team in the nation. When they don’t, as was the case through a lot of February, this becomes a more pedestrian team.
THE SATURDAY MATCHUPS
Wichita-Louisville (6:09 PM ET, CBS)
Michigan-Syracuse (8:49 PM ET, CBS)
Louisville is a 10-point favorite over Wichita, and a friend of mine who picked the Cards to win it all summed up what I suspect is the prevailing national sentiment—“they have a bye into the national championship game.” Those are fightin’ words for the good people of Wichita, but while I’d be comfortable grabbing the points with the Shockers, I’m a little less optimistic about their ability to pull an outright upset.
My problem is that Wichita has no one who can matchup with Deng underneath, and while the center can be inconsistent, it’s easy to envision him slapping up a 20 points/12 rebounds showing that Wichita can’t counter. And while we shouldn’t expect Louisville to repeat their exquisite offensive showing from the Duke game (it was their best offensive game of the year), we can expect the Cards’ defense to be in usual lockdown mode. If Wichita brings their own defense that can hang around and keep it interesting—kind of like then-underdog Louisville did last year against top-heavy favorite Kentucky in this round—but the matchup isn’t right to be calling for an upset.
Michigan is the slight favorite in the showcase game, giving 2 ½ points. They’re certainly the more talented team and with three players who can shoot the trey, the Wolverines have the personnel to break open the Syracuse zone. I’m a little hesitant, because the same was true of Indiana, and we saw Boeheim’s zone make mincemeat of the Hoosiers.
But I like Michigan’s chances a little better for two reasons—Burke and Hardaway can also play off the dribble and create some outside shots through a drive-and-kick approach. This is a dimension of the game they’re much better at than Indiana. And as an Xs and Os man, I like John Beilein more than Tom Crean. I don’t see Michigan being as woefully unprepared after five days of practice time, in the way Indiana appeared to be. We’ll have a good read on this game early—if Michigan looks tentative and just passes the ball back and forth in the backcourt until the shot clock is at ten, they aren’t ready and Boeheim will play for a national championship. If Michigan works to stay active against the zone, their superior talent can prevail.
THE BETTING LINES
As noted at the top, Louisville is a 2-3 favorite, which is just a very bad price. I know they’re playing well and they’re the #1 overall seed. But they’ve already lost to Syracuse once—at home. And given that Michigan was in the top five most of the country, would you really be stunned if either team beat the ‘Ville on Monday night? Furthermore, these odds clearly suggest that there’s absolutely no chance whatsoever of an upset in the early semi-final on Saturday. I’ve made my doubts about such clear, but I couldn’t take a betting line that presumed Wichita was going to be nothing more than a Saturday scrimmage.
The odds look even worse when you consider the implications of the other three teams’ numbers. Michigan is 13-4, Syracuse 4-1 and Wichita a hefty 12-1. You can grab both Michigan and Syracuse right now and be assured if a profit if the winner of their game takes the crown. Or, because the Wolverines’ number amounts to 3.25-1, you can take all three teams in Go-Against-The-Favorite strategy and profit regardless.
But then who am I to talk? I outlined ten prop bets at the start of the tournament, and Michigan to the Final Four was the only one to come through. If you assume I put 5 units apiece on each one (use your own imagination to decide how much a unit should be), I ended up down 29 units. Even in a world where the bets are hypothetical, I’m ready to cut my losses and stop digging.