|ESPN.com: NCAA Tourney 13||[Print without images]|
ATLANTA -- Are you ready for some basketball?
Allow me to explain. If you were to fly to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, take a cab into the heart of The A, walk up Decatur as it winds into Marietta, politely push through the thousands of (likewise polite) fans assembled outside, and make your way into the cavernous steel-and-concrete bowels of the Georgia Dome, well that's when it's official: You are as close to the 2013 Final Four as is humanly possible.
Look! Jim Boeheim's on that podium just over there, answering reporters' questions and looking like he'd rather be anywhere else. Final Four! Yes!
Yet, if you did that Friday, you would have been struck by one thing: Of all the stories at the Final Four, a school that hasn't been here since 1976 -- and hasn't even been to the NCAA tournament since 1991 -- was unquestionably the biggest.
Yes, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and their ball-chucking, slur-spitting abusive former coach Mike Rice remained not only a story, but the story Friday, as athletic director Tim Pernetti resigned -- but not without insisting he wanted to fire Rice when he first saw said player-pelting, only to be overruled by his superiors. A questionably handled news conference held by Rutgers president Robert L. Barchi dominated the backstage televisions all day, and each of the four head coaches spent at least part of the Thursday and Friday media time answering questions about Rice and Rutgers and What It All Means.
|Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim watches Friday's action at the Georgia Dome.|
Combine the boundless reach of the Rice story with the Ed Rush Pac-12 officiating scandal, a wave of coaching moves and NBA draft decisions, and even the heartwarming story of injured Louisville guard and Atlanta native Kevin Ware (who made a fantastic cameo on "The Late Show with David Letterman" Wednesday night), and it's hard to recall a pre-Final Four quiet period quite as boisterous as this one.
It was almost easy to forget what this weekend is really about: crowning an NCAA tournament champion.
So, yeah, you guessed it. We are ready for some basketball.
Here's the good news: On Saturday, the outside noise fades away. The basketball becomes the signal -- and oh what a signal it should be.
The first of the two matchups, No. 1 overall seed Louisville versus 9-seed Wichita State, has been billed as a David and Goliath ordeal, and not without some reason. The Cardinals, a return visitor from last season's New Orleans Final Four, are the overwhelming favorite to win the title, much as they were before the tournament began, coached by a man (Rick Pitino) who will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame early next week.
They got to Atlanta not just by winning their four tournament games, but by mercilessly destroying everything in their path: Louisville has won its four NCAA tournament games by an average margin of 22 points, which was precisely the margin it finished with after Peyton Siva and Russ Smith thrashed fellow title contender Duke 85-63 in Sunday night's regional final in Indianapolis.
So while Louisville is a shoo-in for Goliath, Wichita State wouldn't be our first choice of Davids. Sure, the Shockers are a No. 9 seed. And sure, they hail from the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference. But coach Gregg Marshall has built a truly impressive self-sustaining program -- one that lost five seniors from last season's No. 5-seeded group -- on the backs of junior college transfers who could play major minutes at all but a handful of elite college hoops programs. Wichita State hovered in or around the top 25 all season and would have been seeded higher if not for a wobbly 5-5 finish down the stretch.
The Shockers sell out every home game, some 10,000 strong, and the first thing any opposing coach says about them (other than, maybe, his desire to pay respects to the interior beast that is Carl Hall) is to profess how confident Wichita State always is. The Shockers back down from no one -- even Louisville's vaunted defense, which will press in the full court and play matchup zone in the half court and try to force as many turnovers as possible.
Don't expect the Shockers to play timid, pull-it-out-and-work-it-around basketball. Expect them to take dead aim. It's the only way to beat Louisville -- assuming there is a way in the first place.
And that's just the appetizer! With all due respect to the Cardinals and Shockers, it would be silly to suggest that it is the best prospective game on the docket. That honor clearly goes to the finale, a battle of 4-seeds between Michigan and Syracuse, which likewise comes with its fair share of made-to-order storylines.
There's Michigan searching for redemption after exactly two decades in the post-Fab Five wilderness. (This isn't just the Wolverines' first Final Four appearance since Jalen Rose & Co. were wearing black sneaks and black socks on campus, but last weekend was their first Sweet 16 appearance in that time.) There's Boeheim back at the Final Four for the first time since 2003, when a kid named Carmelo helped win his long-awaited first national title.
|Trey Burke and Michigan will have to face Syracuse's famed zone.|
There's the matchup between Michigan's player of the year awards-sweeping Trey Burke and NBA-scout-saliva-inducing Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams. There's John Beilein -- long one of the most respected coaches in the sport, if not one of its most accomplished -- with a chance to tack a national title onto a CV that began with 20 years spent coaching Newfane High School, Erie Community College, Nazareth and LeMoyne.
But more than anything, there is The Matchup: Michigan's brilliant offense against Syracuse's brutal zone defense. The Wolverines were one of the best offensive teams in the country all season, and they are almost perfectly designed -- Burke handling the ball and Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas spotting up for 3-pointers, and Mitch McGary cleaning up scraps on the low block -- to hit all the obvious strategic notes against Boeheim's classic 2-3 zone.
Except that this zone isn't playing like most 2-3 zones, even by Boeheim's standards: The Orange have allowed just .72 points per possession in their four NCAA tournament games. They are not only the best shot-blocking team in the country, they also create steals and force turnovers and hold opponents to less than 28.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc. They are ruthless.
There will be countless personal dramas playing out when both teams take the floor at 8:49 p.m. ET Saturday (or thereabouts, anyway). There are stories everywhere, whether coaches at the tail end of their careers or players who write their first chapters under the highest of scrutiny. This is always what makes the Final Four great: comedy and tragedy with stagecraft to spare.
But you know what? As great as those stories will no doubt be, I've had enough of the stories for now. I'm ready to get down to business -- the business of why we're here in the first place.
I'm ready for basketball.