Saturday, April 06, 2013

2013 Final Four Preview: Who Are They Playing For?

Louisville is a 1-seed.  Syracuse and Michigan are 4’s.  And Wichita St. is a 9.  Add those up and you get … carry the 1 … 18.  Despite a tournament that largely has fulfilled its promise as one of the most unpredictable in history, this Final Four seed total is only the fourth-highest since 1979, the first year all teams in the NCAA Tournament were given seeds.  (The mark remains the 2011 Final Four, which has a total number of 26, fattened up by 8-seed Butler and 11-seed Virginia Commonwealth.)

Nevertheless, I had both the Wolverines and the Orange losing in the real second round (the third round according to the NCAA, who still cling to the faux legitimacy of those “opening round” games).  And I had the Shockers losing to Pittsburgh in their first game.  That’s more than enough unpredictability for me – and no, I am not going to win my bracket pool.

So these four teams have earned the right to play in Atlanta.  But what are they playing for?  Like it or not, each participant has other people’s wishes living vicariously through it.

Wichita St., obviously, carries the mantle of The Little Guy.  A neat little team from the Missouri Valley, a mid-major conference held in high regard, the Shockers nevertheless toiled this year in the shadow of Creighton and their All-American leader, Doug McDermott.  They’ve certainly had their breaks: They took down a Gonzaga by racking up a season-high 14 three-pointers and then they dispatched lower-seeded (though game) La Salle in the Sweet Sixteen.

But the Shockers’ team performance in pushing out to a big lead against Ohio St. in the regional final and holding on for dear life at the end renewed hope in Pollyanna-ish fans who still want to believe that basketball championships can be won by those who believe in “we,” not “I,” especially if those “I”’s will announce they’re going to turn pro after the Big Dance is over.  Regardless, it truly has been one hell of a run by head coach Gregg Marshall, and they have the support of everybody who sides with David against the mighty Goliath called Louisville.  (One note of irony to note: The team plays in Koch Arena, named after Charles Koch, Wichita native, billionaire, and one of the most powerful libertarians in the country.  Funny to see the name of a man obsessed with the notion of personal liberty adorn the arena of a team that, at least in a certain sense, represents the 99% of the college basketball world.)

Michigan, meanwhile, carries the mantle – or should I say the burden – of representing the Big Ten, aka The Best Conference in Basketball.  Charles Barkley, once again demonstrating he sticks out in NCAA Tournament coverage like he would on Dancing With the Stars (it’s not his bizarre prognostications that make him a liability in CBS/Turner’s broadcasts; it’s the fact that he and Kenny Smith saunter in from Inside The NBA and start acting like experts even though they didn’t analyze college basketball until three damn weeks ago), predicted that the Big Ten was overrated.  He looked absolutely stupid when six of the conference’s seven invites won their first game, and four of them reached the Sweet Sixteen.

But damn the Round Mound of Rebound for staging a comeback.  Conference favorites Indiana and Ohio St. both failed to make the Final Four despite being solid favorites.  Meanwhile, the Wolverines controlled VCU’s “Havoc” defense, completed a ridiculous comeback over top-seeded Kansas, and overwhelmed advanced metric darling Florida to reach the national semifinals for the first time since the Fab Five flocked to the Final Four exactly twenty years ago.  I don’t think the Wolverines need to do anything more to redeem the reputation of the B1G.  But I don’t know if others will think any finish short of a title will label the conference as anything less than a disappointment.

We all know who Louisville is playing for: Kevin Ware, the guard who suffered that gruesome freak leg break in the Cardinals’ Elite Eight victory over Duke on Sunday.  (I haven’t seen it, and by how it’s been described, I’m OK with never seeing it ever.)  How fortuitous that Ware’s hometown is Atlanta, site of the Final Four.  Despite being the only top seed to reach the final weekend and the overall #1 seed in the field, the team has shown nothing but class since Ware’s horrific injury: Head Coach Rick Patino and his son, former Florida International and new Minnesota Head Coach Richard Patino, visited Ware in his hospital room and gave him the region trophy, and the school tried to harness support for him by changing the “s” in those “Rise to the Occasion” shirts you saw the benchwarmers wear in the tourney games last week into a “5,” which is Ware’s number.  Louisville said they weren’t profiting from the shirts, but on Friday adidas stopped selling them.

And who’s Syracuse playing for?  Ah … the zone defense?  It may be a stretch, but it looks like the Orange are playing, for the last time, for the Big East, historically known as The Best Basketball Conference in College Basketball.  In Alexander Wolff’s excellent pre-emptive obituary for Sports Illustrated, the school’s move into the Atlantic Coast Conference starting next year was essentially the dagger that stabbed the Big East’s heart.  But like a torrid summer romance that ends with two horny teams having sex one last time before he has to move back home for the start of school, Syracuse will display the Big East logo for the 34th and final year as it seeks its second NCAA championship.

One storyline that dominated the college basketball regular season was the dearth of scoring.  We have not really seen a field-wide drought of offense in this year’s tournament, although Marquette scoring only 39 points in its East Regional Final loss to Syracuse was particularly wince-inducing.  But we have seen, especially in the Elite Eight games, a prolonged period of time where one team could not score for a big stretch of the second half, thus allowing its opponent to pull away to an easy victory.  It happened not only to the Golden Eagles but also to Michigan St. in its Sweet Sixteen loss to Duke … who in turn couldn’t throw a spear into the ocean in its Midwest Regional Final defeat at the hands of Louisville (albeit with “help” by the Cardinals’ oppressive defense).  And Florida doubled its displeasure in the South Regional Final by not being able to score in either half of their 20-point loss to Michigan.

I think that will continue in the Final Four games Saturday, so it won’t be pretty if you want to tune in to see close and exciting games.  It will finally strike midnight for Cinderella as Louisville flexes its might and runs over and through Wichita St. in the second twenty minutes.  Meanwhile, Syracuse’s length and zone D will flummox yet another opponent and turn Trey Burke, Michigan’s point guard and Associated Press National Player of the Year, into a turnover starter as Syracuse runs and hides.

Therefore, the Big East will come out for an encore.  In what will be a tight but low-scoring all-timer, the Orange will alter enough Louisville drives, stop enough Louisville shots and collect enough rebounds to repel the Cardinals and give grumpy coach Jim Boeheim a title he didn’t even seem to want a month ago.  And in a delicious twist, the Big East will have one final shining moment Monday … featuring teams that will bolt the conference after this year (in Syracuse’s case) and next year (in Louisville’s).

Posted by WilliamSou at 1:05 AM


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