Final Four fitting of chaotic season
In the season of living crazily, where No. 1 rankings were treated like hot potatoes and court stormings occurred so frequently they became blasé, naturally we end up here: with a Final Four that promises to be wildly entertaining while still offering a how-in-the-world-did-we-get-here head-scratcher of a quartet.
On Saturday night, Louisville will face Wichita State in one national semifinal, Michigan against Syracuse in the other.
And once again, it's Louisville as the outlier. But unlike a year ago, when the Cardinals' surprise run made them misfits among moguls, this season they stick out because they belong. Louisville did the damnedest thing this season: it actually lived up to expectations.
The Cardinals started the season ranked No. 2, tied for the Big East regular-season title, won the Big East tournament, parlayed that into an overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and actually went out and won to get back to the Final Four.
The Cardinals even followed their conference's script -- or at least the script of the conference they were in that has since been reformed, leaving them in a conference without a name. Or something like that.
Point being, the Cardinals won the Big East tournament, making them the fourth consecutive Big East team to win the league tourney and make it to the Final Four.
Crazy kids. Didn't they see this script? You're supposed to defy logic in 2012-13.
Michigan, Syracuse and Wichita State got the memo, the trio all but serving as Exhibits A, B and C in the season of living crazily.
Michigan started the season ranked fifth in the nation, made it to No. 1 and then lost to Indiana to end its reign atop the standings. It regrouped for a while only to limp into March, finishing the regular season 5-5, including a loss at Penn State that included a Nittany Lions court storming to celebrate the team's first Big Ten win.
Syracuse started the year at No. 9, climbed as high as No. 3 and then tumbled all the way to 19th, courtesy of a 5-7 hobble into March that hit its nadir with a regular-season and rivalry-closing finale against Georgetown in which the Orange managed to score a whopping 39 points.
Wichita State went the other way, beginning the year unranked and then working its way as high as 15th during the week of Jan. 28. Then the Shockers promptly strung together a three-game skid, including a loss to last-place Missouri Valley finisher Southern Illinois. Wichita State closed out the regular-season 5-5.
None of those three won its conference tournament, none earned a ridiculously high RPI mark or a huge nod from the selection committee. Michigan and Syracuse are both No. 4 seeds, Wichita State a No. 9.
In other words, applying logic, none of those three is supposed to be at the Final Four -- even though every last one deserves to be at the Final Four. To get to Atlanta, Michigan, Syracuse and Wichita State each beat a 1-seed, while Louisville carried the albatross of expectation that comes with the top line with ease.
They all had the moments that make the NCAA tournament so singularly difficult -- the potential potholes that are forgiven in a five- or seven-game series in other sports, but result in a quick exit in this postseason.
Michigan's came against Kansas, an impossible come-from-behind victory that fit the impossibility of 2012-13 to perfection. Syracuse had to dig in against Cal, the Orange so inept offensively that they managed all of six buckets in the second half -- a fitting metaphor, too, for a season in which offense regularly needed resuscitation and defense won the day.
The Shockers survived a furious rally from Ohio State to advance to their first Final Four since 1965, where they'll represent all of the teams that pulled off the upsets this year.
And finally there is Louisville, at once both the least and most tested team in this final group.
A nine-point win over Oregon served as the Cardinals' slimmest margin of victory, but really, the game wasn't that close. Yet no team goes to Atlanta tested more than Louisville.
The Cards' ability to somehow overcome the anguish and the awfulness of Kevin Ware's injury was equal parts amazing and astounding, a testament to the power of emotion. Louisville will arrive in Atlanta as the prohibitive favorite, riding the emotions of playing for Ware yet facing a hard reality when it comes to playing without him.
He's the Cards' best backcourt backup, a steadying hand when or if Peyton Siva and/or Russ Smith get into foul trouble, not an uncommon occurrence. And now without him, Rick Pitino will have to hope his risk-reward guards pick their risks wisely or turn to walk-on Tim Henderson for help.
It's the cruelest of twists for Ware and Louisville, really. The Cards won 14 games in a row with relative ease. It looked like finally this wacky season had some order.
And now this impossibly-hard-to-comprehend injury comes at the worst possible time.
It defies logic.
But then again, what hasn't this year?
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