Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Sports

Final Four teams have different strengths

ATLANTA — An inspired Louisville squad vs. the surprising Shockers.

A new group of Fab Wolverines vs. the stingiest zone defense in college basketball.

After a weekend of blowouts and another upset, the Final Four is set.

Top overall seed Louisville faces Wichita State in one national semifinal at the Georgia Dome on Saturday, and Michigan takes on Syracuse in the other.

In the final year of the Big East as it is currently known, Louisville and Syracuse have provided a fitting sendoff for a league that quickly became a basketball powerhouse after it was founded in 1979. Before it splits into a new-look Big East and another conference and loses members to other conferences next season, this version has a shot at one more national title.

With two teams, no less.

The Cardinals — who, with Syracuse, are moving to the ACC — are the only No. 1 seed to make it to the Final Four. Louisville won its four Midwest Region games by an average of nearly 22 points.

"This is a gritty bunch," coach Rick Pitino said. "From the beginning of the year to now, they've not had a bad game. I'm really proud of these guys."

Though the Cardinals are the clear favorite heading to their second straight Final Four, Wichita State is the most improbable team to advance. The ninth-seeded Shockers lived up to their nickname in the West Region, knocking off top-seeded Gonzaga in the second round and No. 2 seed Ohio State in the region final Saturday.

The Shockers need an even bigger stunner to knock off Louisville, the one team in a wide-open tournament that has looked unbeatable. Then again, that other team from Kansas has shown no fear.

"It feels very good," said Cleanthony Early, a junior forward who, like most Shockers, was passed over by higher-profile programs. "But we understand the fact that we've got to stay hungry and humble, because we've got two more games left to really be excited about."

Young Michigan has its work cut out for it against Syracuse, which has stuffed NCAA opponents with a stifling zone defense. The Orange heads to its first Final Four since winning it all in 2003 largely because it has allowed fewer than 46 points a game in the tournament.

Syracuse has been like an octopus when it settles in around the lane, shutting off passing routes, preventing anyone from penetrating, yet defending the 3-point line with quickness and long arms. Montana, California, top-seeded Indiana and Marquette combined to shoot just under 29 percent from the field (61-of-211) and 15.4 percent (14-of-91) outside the arc.

"We were as active these two games (East Region semifinal and final) here in Washington as we've ever been," coach Jim Boeheim said after Saturday's final win over league rival Marquette. "I just really can't say enough about how good these guys played on the defensive end of the court."

Said Michigan guard Trey Burke: "A lot of guys said we were really young and that we couldn't get here. We're here now, and we still have unfinished business."

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