After a lackluster Elite Eight, the first two games of the Final Four exceeded all possible expectations. And with a great ball-handling team set to take on a great pressing team, with the best offense in the nation set to play the best defense in the nation, the championship game just might live up to the hype too.
Louisville defeats Wichita St.
Somewhere there are Wichita St. fans that are heart-broken. But as a sports fan, I have to remind them of this. It will never be any more fun than this season. To return only 21% of your scoring, lose three players to injury in January, earn what everyone calls a horrible tournament draw against Pittsburgh and Gonzaga in the first two rounds, expectations couldn’t have been any lower. And to go from that to losing a nail-biter in the national semifinal, that is sports nirvana.
This is also why it is so wonderful that college basketball celebrates teams for making the Final Four. The NBA doesn’t celebrate coaches for making the Conference Finals. MLB doesn’t have a big ticker-tape celebration for reaching the Division Series. But when the Shockers fly back to Wichita St., they will have a big celebration. And they deserve it. The way they went down, the Shockers have nothing to hang their head about.
The previous teams seeded 9+ in the Final Four had lost by an average margin of 17 points. But Wichita St. did not go out without a fight. The Shockers went 26 minutes without turning the ball over against one of the top turnover forcing teams in the nation. They led 8-0, led by 12 in the second half, and even led 60-58 when it looked like it was slipping away. That last basket, with Louisville up 58-57 was truly magical. After it looked like Louisville had stolen the ball, Carl Hall fought for the ball on the floor, Cleanthony Early made a step-through floater “and one!” And that last 60-58 lead is a memory that can never be taken away.
But if Louisville was Goliath, they were the team that was impossible to cheer against. That is because Louisville truly represented what it means to be a team. If you thought based on his season-long PPG that it had to be the Russ Smith show, if you thought based on the run against Duke that it had to be the Peyton Siva show, Louisville showed that sometimes it takes a full roster to play for a national title.
The comeback started when walk-on Tim Henderson hit two huge threes. As the TV graphic said, he did not play in 13 games this year because Rick Pitino didn’t have minutes for him in the rotation. He scored 16 points in 25 games. And there he was scoring the two biggest threes any walk-on will ever hit.
Then there was the part where Luke Hancock took over. At one point he drove to the basket in transition and had his shot blocked. But the block careened out to a Louisville player, and they reset and got the ball back to Hancock. At this point, Hancock was mad. He wanted that lay-up. And for any normal player with a reputation as a stand-still three point gunner, what he did next would have been foolish. But Hancock wasn’t a traditional three-point gunner. He was a former lead-guard for George Mason (which include an NCAA tournament game-winner two years earlier.) And in that lead-guard role, Hancock learned to attack the basket late in games. And with the reset ending up in Hancock’s hands, he was not going to be denied. Hancock drove the lane, used the basket for protection, and got his driving lay-up.
Back-up forward Stephan Van Treese was key too. With the game tied at 58, Van Treese contested an in-bounds pass at half-court that allowed Russ Smith to pick up the loose ball and give Louisville a 60-58 lead.
Meanwhile Chane Behanan was there for a late tip in to make it 62-60 Louisville.
And there was Gorgui Dieng blocking a shot and causing a shot-clock violation with just 2:16 left.
The entire comeback was a team effort. (And even if he wasn’t key to the comeback, it is worth noting that back-up forward Montrezl Harrell kept Louisville in the game in the first half with his tip-ins.)
Last year’s Kentucky team was a great team because it was a wonderful compilation of supremely talented basketball players. But this year’s Louisville team is a team in the truest sense of the word. For Louisville, the sum was truly greater than the parts.
Michigan defeats Syracuse
At the end of the regular season, Jordan Morgan was returning from injury. And I remember Dan Dakich raving about Morgan’s play. Dakich noted that Morgan’s communication, range, and overall activity level was going to improve Michigan’s defense enough to make a run in the NCAA tournament. In many ways, the prediction did not work out. With Mitch McGary emerging, and John Beilein preferring to keep a perimeter oriented lineup on the floor, Morgan hasn’t seen enough playing time to improve Michigan’s defense. But with a trip to the championship game on the line and a two point lead, Morgan drew a charge that was the difference in the game.
Of course if you are Syracuse, you blame the officials. There was the play where Michigan should have been called for a charge. There was the play where Michael Carter-Williams was called for an illegal screen and fouled out. There was the lane violation. And then there was that last play where Brandon Triche, instead of going to the free throw line to tie the game, fouled out.
But the truth is, if you ask most Syracuse fans, this still wasn’t the most heart-breaking loss of the last 10 years. When you talk to the die-hards, the folks that watch this team every game, they all know the truth. This wasn’t the most talented Syracuse team by any stretch. On a neutral floor, most of them would pick last year’s Syracuse team to beat this year’s team easily. But even if this Syracuse team wasn’t the best, or even the most heart-breaking, it had something that can never be replaced. It had grit. This year’s Syracuse team fought for every inch of real estate in the paint. It never gave up defensively. It fought vigorously for offensive rebounds. And even if the refs kept this team from reaching the championship game, this post-season was an overwhelming surprise.
And if many of the key players graduate or declare for the draft, Syracuse fans can take heart in the performance of CJ Fair. Fair led all scorers in the game, but it was his play with 12:45 left in the second half that I thought was symbolic of the season for Syracuse. After the Orange missed a three pointer and McGary had secured a clear rebound, Fair snuck behind and stole the ball and got fouled. Syracuse was down 8 at the time, but Fair’s action basically signaled to his teammates that they weren’t giving up. And in 2013, that was the story of the Syracuse season. They could have given up in February when the offense wasn’t working, but instead they played their hearts out to the point where they were one referee call away.
Meanwhile, the story for Michigan was pretty clear. I liked how Kenny Smith put it at half-time. Everyone knows how to beat the Syracuse zone. Michigan was just the first team to do it. They got offensive rebounds, they got out in transition, and they made tough deep threes. The formula is simple, but Michigan was the first team to do it.
-Somewhere Florida fans were watching Nik Stauskas go 0-4 from 3 and cursing at their TVs.
-I liked when Clark Kellogg said Ron Baker was 20 of 23 from the free throw line in the tournament and those free throws “never hit the rim”. Really, the three misses were air-balls?
-At some point Steve Kerr said, “Trevor Cooney is a much better three point shooter than his numbers show. He has made only 26% of his long range shots this year.” I can understand that if you have lead guard who takes a lot of shots with the shot-clock winding down, or if you have a superstar who is constantly double-covered, that you can make arguments like this. But when a freshman keeps missing open jumpers, I don’t know how you can really argue with the numbers.
-Doug Gottlieb had his best diagram of the tournament at half-time of the Louisville vs Wichita St. game when he showed how Wichita St. used Gorgui Dieng’s preference to defend the paint against him. There are ways to negate a great shot-blocker, but it takes great execution.
-I truly believe it was a Louisville comeback, not a Wichita St. collapse. Looking back at the game-tape, the only play where I thought Wichita St. took the foot off the gas was when freshman Ron Baker passed up a wide-open three from the top of the key with a 9 point lead. Michigan on the other hand had a big collapse. They stopped being aggressive with the basketball with 4 minutes left, and it almost cost them the game.