The Final Two Look to Join the Final Four

If UConn is to make the Final Four it will be on the back of Shabazz Napier.

Last evening the Florida Gators put an end to the Dayton Flyers’ Cinderella run with a ten-point win while the Wisconsin Badgers beat the Arizona Wildcats in a thriller to advance to the Final Four. Today, we get a couple of somewhat unexpected match-ups as the surprising UConn Huskies; a seventh seed play forth seeded Michigan State. In the other regional final, the Kentucky Wildcats and all their youth go up against the Michigan Wolverines and their three-point shooting sensations.

UConn (+6) vs. Michigan State – There was a significant amount of talk that should Michigan State get past Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen that a trip to the Final Four would be a foregone conclusion. Perhaps it will, but standing in the way of that trip is a surging UConn Huskies team led by a dynamic senior scorer.

Shabazz Napier has put the Huskies on his back in much the same way Danny Manning did so many years ago in leading Kansas to a National Title. The difference of course is that Napier is a guard whereas Manning was more of a post, swingman type player.

What Napier and his teammates will face is one of the more aggressive and well-rounded teams they’ve faced all season in Michigan State. Head Coach Tom Izzo finally has a team as close to full health as he has had all season. The signs of this current NCAA Tournament run started in the Big Ten Tournament where the Spartans blitzed through the opponents en route to the conference tournament title.

Izzo is six out of seven in Elite Eight games and has also had every senior class under his tutelage reach at least one Final Four. This current group of seniors is the only exception. The Spartans rarely do things the easy way and I think that will be the case again today. I expect them to challenge Napier at both ends of the court and I believe inside-outside big man Adriean Payne will be the difference.

Take UConn to win getting the six points but I like Izzo and the Spartans to advance.

If Stauskas is knocking down three's then Kentucky is in trouble.

Kentucky (-2.5) vs. Michigan – It’s extremely hard to argue and go against what the Kentucky Wildcats have been able to do so far in this tournament. I really expected them to have a tournament similar to their regular season. I figured they’d get past their first round game and then put together a real stinker of a game and be out by the third (I call it the second) round.

That hasn’t been the case though as John Calipari has led his band of youthful exuberants to the Elite Eight. The road will become more difficult with Michigan the opponent but also because the Wildcats will more than likely be without Willie Caulie-Stein. The UK big man was in a walking boot yesterday after a severe ankle sprain in the first half of the team’s win over Louisville.

That will put more pressure on Julius Randle who so far has been able to carry the Wildcats with great play in the paint. The Wolverines have of course gone this season without their great big man Mitch McGary who has been following back surgery. That has left Michigan a bit thin down low but they have survived with smart defense and good rebounding when necessary.

John Bielein’s club has and will live and die with the three-point shot where they knock down shots at about 40% of those. Let’s be blount here; if Nik Stauskus gets good looks and his fellow three-point shooters do the same then I definitely like the Wolverines especially getting 2.5 points despite being a two-seed.

Syracuse, Wichita State are the First to Punch Final Four Tickets

The Orange's 2-3 zone is a major reason why they are in the Final Four

My guess is that few people thought Syracuse could reach the Final Four this season and I guarantee you even fewer had the Shockers of Wichita State making it either but here they are. What we now know is that two pieces of the Final Four pie are in place. Michigan and Florida will battle in one game today while Louisville and Duke go at it in the other. The winners of each game will complete the Final Four for the 2013 season.

Certainly the Orange have long been a powerhouse under Jim Boeheim and this season they often showed signs of being dominant but they also looked average at times this year too. What is crystal clear right now is that the infamous Syracuse 2-3 zone is stifling opposing offenses to a crushing tune. Yesterday the Orange defeated soon to be former Big East cohort Marquette 55-39 in a game that left Eagles Head Coach Buzz Williams full of praise for the Orange. Williams said his team “tried everything they had” in the loss.

The Orange will now await the winner of the game today between the Gators and the Wolverines.

The Shockers stunned Ohio State with a big first half and then held on.

For the Shockers, we really shouldn’t be too surprised by this team. I think there were many who thought a mid-major could make a serious run this season but how many pegged Wichita State is a whole other matter. WSU is headed to Atlanta following a 74-70 win over 2nd seed Ohio State. The loss ended the Buckeyes win streak at 11 games and the Shockers become the first Missouri Valley Conference team to make the Final Four since Indiana State in 1979. You recall this “Larry Bird guy” playing for the Sycamores back then.

Wichita State has now defeated number one seed Gonzaga and number two seed Ohio State in consecutive games. The task will get no easier as they will get the winner between the Cardinals and Blue Devils in the National Semi-Finals.

Looking ahead to today

1 Louisville vs 2 Duke – Louisville has arguably been the most impressive team of the tournament so far averaging over 80 points per game. In the Sweet 16, they jumped to an early lead and then kept Oregon at bay most of the game leading by ten most of the game. Duke turned in a pretty impressive performance against Michigan State limiting the Spartans to just a handful of field goals in the second half.

The question for me in this game will be can Duke handle the pressure of the Cardinals? Both of these teams have very good guard play which then begs the question of who can get the better of the other in the paint? Duke defeated Louisville 76-71 way back in the early stages of the season but the Cards were without Gorgui Dieng who leads Louisville in rebounding.

As impressed as I was with Duke against Michigan State, I just think Russ Smith is playing too well for the Cards and overall they are too athletic right now for Duke.

#4 Michigan vs #3 Florida – Both of these teams played very intriguing games in the Sweet 16. Michigan roared back behind Trey Burke to defeat top-seeded Kansas in overtime. Florida fell behind early to NCAA Tournament darling Florida Gulf Coast, but the Gators methodically chipped away at the Eagles and let their interior dominance take over.

Wolverines’ freshman Mitch McGary was outstanding against the Jayhawks scoring 25 points but can he handle the strength of the Gators inside? The Gators do not possess a guard as good as Trey Burke but they are deep at the position and can run several guys at them. If Michigan can shoot the three and can keep the Gators frustrated in the half-court offense then they have a shot. The interior defense has troubled them all year and I think it will be their undoing in a tight Florida victory.