Ranking the Final Four teams, and the four best teams at home
How does the final quartet of teams look heading into Atlanta? And what about the four best teams not in Atlanta?
As college basketball descends on Atlanta for the Final Four, it’s time to reassess the quartet that will vie for the title.
Is it the four that we expected at the beginning of the season? Heck, it’s not the four that we expected at the beginning of last Saturday. There is only one top-three seed left in the field, and we also have a team from the bottom half of the bracket. Does that mean we have a clear-cut favorite and a cakewalk of a Final Four? Given the way this season has gone, of course not.
Here’s how I view the teams heading into the Final Four.
1. Louisville Cardinals : The Cardinals are the last No. 1 seed standings and remain the odds-on favorite to cut down the nets on Monday night. They have been steamrolling opponents over the past month, winning 14 in a row since a five-overtime loss to Notre Dame. The Cardinals are playing terrific defense, and the backcourt of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith has been unstoppable. Throw in the emotional edge of trying to win a national title for injured Kevin Ware , and it’s tough to see the Cardinals getting knocked off in Atlanta.
2. Michigan Wolverines : After slumping toward the end of the season, especially away from home, the Wolverines have looked rejuvenated in the NCAA tournament. They are playing more free-flowing and open, and the emergence of Mitch McGary has an impact player on the interior and has taken Michigan to a new level. Trey Burke isn’t shooting the ball well, but he showed against Kansas that he can still carry the Wolverines. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas are knocking down shots, and Glenn Robinson III is a matchup nightmare. This team is clicking again.
3. Syracuse Orange : Another team that is hitting its stride after a late-season slide, Jim Boeheim’s Orange have simply been a lockdown team on the defensive end. Teams aren’t able to get open looks or get into any sort of rhythm. As a result, Syracuse is playing with a ton of confidence, and that has translated into better execution on the offensive end. Michael Carter-Williams is becoming a leader, and the Orange have plenty of weapons on the offensive end. If opponents continue to have trouble figuring out the 2-3 zone, Syracuse can win it.
4. Wichita State Shockers : The Cinderella of the group, the Shockers are the fifth mid-major since 2006 to make a run to the Final Four. But don’t mistake Wichita State for a team that is only in Atlanta because it got lucky and hot at the right time. The Shockers are tough and physical defensively, and they dominate the paint and the glass. They are also hitting outside shots at an increased clip. They go into the Final Four as the underdog, but that was the case throughout most of the tournament. Louisville can’t overlook Gregg Marshall’s crew.
As a bonus, it’s also a chance to look at the four best teams that will be watching the Final Four from afar -- perhaps unexpectedly.
1. Indiana Hoosiers : The Hoosiers might have been the most complete team in the country throughout the season, but they had no answer for the 2-3 zone of Syracuse. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo were two of the 10 best players in the country, and they had all the requisite weapons offensively. Until they ran into Syracuse -- when they suddenly couldn’t get out and run. Disappointing finish for Tom Crean’s crew.
2. Duke Blue Devils : With Ryan Kelly in the lineup, the Blue Devils were among the best teams from start to finish. There were only two hiccups with a healthy Kelly -- against Maryland in the ACC tournament and against the buzzsaw of Louisville in the big dance. Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee formed a dynamite inside-outside duo. Duke would have been the title favorite had it beaten Louisville.
3. Kansas Jayhawks : I wasn’t as high on the Jayhawks heading into the NCAA tournament as their seeding would suggest, but this team looked like a Final Four team -- until the final four minutes of the Sweet 16 against Michigan. Had Burke not hit a 26-foot stepback 3, had Elijah Johnson not passed it out to Naadir Tharpe -- who knows, Kansas could be headed to Atlanta right now.
4. Gonzaga Bulldogs : Before you get into a tizzy about Gonzaga getting knocked out in the Round of 32, I’ll say this spot came down to Gonzaga and Georgetown Hoyas . Florida Gators was good, too, but the Gators got trucked by nearly every good opponent that they played away from home. Michigan State Spartans never seemed consistent enough. As a result, Gonzaga gets this last spot. The Bulldogs were outstanding from start to finish and had the personnel to make the Final Four. Wichita State was just otherwordly from 3 in the NCAA tournament and, therefore, Gonzaga is sitting at home.
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