The Final Four is set with a collection of schools that almost nobody -- literally, almost nobody -- projected to spend a weekend in Atlanta together. So this is basically like every other year, you know? (Except for 2008, of course.) And the storylines are obvious:
- Rick Pitino trying to become the first man to win titles at two different schools.
- Jim Boeheim trying to get his second at Syracuse.
- John Beilein trying to get his first after three decades as a head coach.
- Wichita State trying to ...
Hold up! What the hell is Wichita State doing here?
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"We want to one-up everybody," Shockers coach Gregg Marshall told me late Saturday, and now he's just two wins from doing it. Wichita State could become the first school from a non-power league to win a title since UNLV in 1990, and the lowest-seeded team to ever do it. So, yeah, the Shockers are in a position to one-up everybody. Can they do it? Will they do it? I'll address that and more in this Final Four Look Ahead.
----- SATURDAY'S SEMIFINALS -----
Wichita State (30-8) vs. Louisville (33-5)
Tip: 6:09 p.m. ET
Line: Louisville -10
Louisville is favored because ... the Cardinals are operating at an extremely high level right now -- just destroying everybody placed in front of them. Rick Pitino's team has won 14 consecutive games by an average of 17.3 points, and the past 10 victories have all come at the expense of teams that also played in this NCAA tournament. Only two opponents -- Syracuse on March 2 at the Carrier Dome, Oregon on Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium -- have avoided a double-digit loss to the Cards. So Louisville is favored big because Louisville should be favored big. The Cardinals are talented, deep, experienced and coached by a man who should be a Hall of Famer next week. So can Wichita State upset Louisville? Yeah, I guess. But it would be a massive upset and huge surprise.
Syracuse (30-9) vs. Michigan (30-7)
Tip: Approximately 8:49 p.m. ET
Line: Michigan -2
Michigan is favored because ... the Wolverines are terrific offensively and led by a consensus First Team All-American named Trey Burke. Michigan just eliminated the Big 12 champs (Kansas) and SEC champs (Florida) in a three-day span and looked wonderful while doing it thanks, in part, to the emergence of Mitch McGary, who is averaging 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in this NCAA tournament. John Beilein's team has college basketball's top-rated offense, according to KenPom.com. So the Wolverines will present a unique (and presumably difficult) challenge for Syracuse's 2-3 zone.
----- FOUR OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THIS FINAL FOUR -----
1. Playing well in February wasn't a prerequisite: College basketball provides a four-month season filled with ups and downs for most teams, even the great ones. And that's something we should probably remember before burying schools on Valentine's Day next year. Louisville was obviously great in February, going 6-1 with the lone loss coming in five overtimes at Notre Dame. But Wichita State was only 5-3, Michigan was only 3-4 and Syracuse was only 4-4 in the lone 28-day month. The lesson? As long as the talented pieces are in place, you don't really have to be great in January, February or even early March to make a run in the Field of 68.
2. It's wise to include the Big East tournament champion in your Final Four: Folks get their brackets every Selection Sunday and fill them out millions of different ways because, honestly, there's no perfect way to do it. But you should always have the Big East Tournament champion in the Final Four. We can all agree on that now, right? Louisville, on Sunday, became the fourth consecutive Big East Tournament champion to make the Final Four -- following itself in 2012, Connecticut in 2011 and West Virginia in 2010. So remember this next year when you get your bracket because ... oh ... wait ... never mind. The Big East broke up. Let's just move on, then.
3. This is not what anybody -- including the RPI and KenPom.com -- predicted: The RPI had these schools ranked No. 3 (Louisville), No. 14 (Syracuse), No. 21 (Michigan) and No. 37 (Wichita State) on Selection Sunday while KenPom.com had them ranked No. 2 (Louisville), No. 11 (Michigan), No. 13 (Syracuse) and No. 34 (Wichita State). So don't feel bad about your human thoughts leading you down a bad path. The computers weren't that good, either.
4. But the preseason Top 25 (and one) was kinda close: We had Louisville No. 1, Michigan No. 5 and Syracuse No. 7 way back in November. That's not too bad. No, we didn't have Wichita State ranked. But the Shockers had lost their top five scorers from last season. So nobody could've reasonably seen this coming (although it does highlight just how good Gregg Marshall is as a college basketball coach).
Final thought: Despite its dominance throughout the season and hype heading into the tournament, the Big Ten ultimately provided only one school to this Final Four.
So the Big Ten was overrated, right?
So, so wrong.
This three-week single-elimination tournament is a wildly entertaining way to decide a national champion, but drawing broad conclusions from it is always a silly exercise. And yet folks still do it. I saw one guy on Twitter suggest the SEC was awful at basketball this season because the fifth-place team from the Big Ten (Michigan) destroyed the SEC champion (Florida). To that, I say, yes, the SEC was awful at basketball this season. But that one 40-minute game between Michigan and Florida doesn't prove it any more than the second-place team from the Atlantic Sun (Florida Gulf Coast) beating the Big East co-champion (Georgetown) proves the Big East was overrated (or that the A-Sun was underrated). Truth be told, most of these things, over a four-month span, are actually properly rated on Selection Sunday. Then the tournament starts and all hell breaks loose.
So can we keep that in mind going forward?
The Big Ten was awesome this season. This NCAA tournament didn't prove otherwise. If anything, it might've actually underlined it considering a Michigan team with six league losses is now favored to play for a national title at the Georgia Dome next Monday night.