A week of build-up has finally given way to Final Four day at last. Here's one last look at some of the keys to Saturday's two national semifinals:
No. 9 WICHITA STATE (30-8) vs. No. 1 LOUISVILLE (33-5)
How the Shockers got here: Defeated No. 8 Pittsburgh, No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 13 La Salle and No. 2 Ohio State
How the Cardinals got here: Defeated No. 16 North Carolina A&T, No. 8 Colorado State, No. 12 Oregon and No. 2 Duke
Did you know? Wichita State is trying to become the first team seeded ninth or higher to advance to the national title game. The four who reached the Final Four prior to the Shockers each lost in the national semifinals.
Three keys to the game:
1. How will Wichita State handle Louisville's pressure? Wichita State averaged 12.8 turnovers and ranked 144th nationally in turnover percentage, neither of which is especially encouraging when facing a team with as ferocious a full-court press as Louisville's. The good news for the Shockers is they survived VCU's swarming "Havoc" defense with only 13 turnovers in a 53-51 November road win. The bad news for the Shockers is any slip-ups Saturday will be costly because Louisville is proficient at turning turnovers into fast-break buckets.
[Related: Louisville success goes beyond Final Four]
2. Can Peyton Siva and Russ Smith avoid foul trouble? With reserve guard Kevin Ware injured and little proven depth available at guard, Louisville may need its two star guards to play close to 40 minutes apiece. That shouldn't be too big a problem fatigue-wise, but the problem that could creep up is foul trouble. Siva has a history of picking up early fouls and Smith is susceptible too because of the aggressiveness with which he plays and the attacking style of Louisville's full-court press.
3. Will the Shockers' torrid shooting continue? You'd never know Wichita State shot a sub-par 34 percent from behind the arc this season by the way the Shockers have been knocking down threes lately. In their last three NCAA tournament victories, they've sank 27 of 60 3-pointers, a robust 45 percent. The return of sweet-shooting Ron Baker and an uptick from Wichita State's other perimeter players has played a role. The question is if that continues in a domed football stadium against a team that defends as well as Louisville.
Quote to note: "If we're turning the ball over and giving them transition opportunities or if we're taking bad shots and allowing them to get out in transition, then we're not doing what we're trying to do ... We set out to make sure that Ohio State had to attack us a halfcourt set defense, and it worked well for us. That's the goal against Louisville, as well." -- Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall on the game plan against the Cardinals.
Prediction: Louisville 69, Wichita State 61
No. 4 SYRACUSE (30-9) vs. No. 4 MICHIGAN (30-7)
How the Orange got here: Defeated No. 13 Montana, No. 12 Cal, No. 1 Indiana and No. 3 Marquette
How the Wolverines got here: Defeated No. 13 South Dakota State, No. 5 VCU, No. 1 Kansas and No. 3 Florida
Did you know? Syracuse is the first shot-clock era team to hold three of its first four NCAA tournament opponents to 50 or fewer points. Only Cal has managed to exceed 50 thus far.
Three keys to the game:
1. Can Michigan get out in transition? Syracuse's NCAA tournament opponents have shot only 28.9 percent from the field and have combined for more turnovers (67) than field goals (61), a testament to the quality of the vaunted two-three zone. Michigan will have to do a better job against the zone than its predecessors, but one way for the Wolverines to beat it is to score before it's set up. Look for Michigan to run off both misses and makes because they'll either get a transition opportunity or at the very least have more time to probe the zone and seek out an open look.
2. Can Michael Carter-Williams be effective in half-court sets? Carter-Williams thrives turning opponents' missed shots into transition opportunities, but the key for Syracuse's offense is whether he can make smart decisions while running half-court sets. Carter-Williams shoots erratically from the perimeter and has a tendency to turn the ball over too much. Couple an efficient night from Carter-Williams and some outside shooting from Brandon Triche and James Southerland with Syracuse's zone, and the Orange can be very hard to beat.
3. How will Nik Stauskas shoot? Getting the ball to the high post or attacking the paint off the dribble will be critical for Michigan against the zone, but Syracuse's length and quickness sometimes makes that difficult. As a result, Michigan is going to have to knock down some outside shots to force the zone to extend and create some gaps inside. The key to that will be Stauskas, an elite shooter mired in a 2 of 16 slump from behind the arc before knocking down all six threes he attempted against Florida. Stauskas has practiced shooting from two or three feet behind the arc this week to account for Syracuse's length on the perimeter.
Quote to note: "If the zone was unbeatable, then they would be 39-0." -- Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. on Syracuse's two-three zone.
Prediction: Michigan 67, Syracuse 64
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