"Welcome to Atlanta where the playas play..."
-- Welcome to Atlanta, Jermaine Dupri [feat. Ludacris]
For those of us who've covered college basketball this season, the word "Atlanta" has been more metonym than metropolis, a short-hand abstraction used to express future possibilities rather than a place where people live, breathe and sometimes play basketball.
But they do, and they will, and after months of building anticipation, the nation's four hottest teams have arrived in Georgia's capital city to decide the 2012-13 national championship.
To pass some of our excitement along and prepare you for the history-making ahead, we've put together a comprehensive guide to the best weekend in college basketball.
Enjoy, comment and strap in.
Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of KenPom.com.
Location: Wichita, Kansas
Coach: Gregg Marshall
Record: 30-8, 12-6 (Missouri Valley Conference)
Region: West, No. 9 Seed
How They Got Here: Beat Pittsburgh (8), 73-55; Beat Gonzaga (1), 76-70; Beat La Salle (13), 72-58; Beat Ohio State (2), 70-66
Season in Review
Picked to finish fourth in the preseason Missouri Valley poll, the Shockers overcame modest expectations and a rash of injuries to finish just a game behind Creighton for the regular-season title. Junior college transfer Cleanthony Early provided an immediate jolt for Gregg Marshall's team, supplementing the steady play of seniors Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead.
The Shockers rose as high as 15th in the AP before a late-season two-game losing streak torpedoed their conference-title hopes and sent them tumbling down the polls. A loss to Creighton in the MVC tournament finals was their second slip up against the Bluejays in the season's final eight days.
Wichita State destroyed eighth-seeded Pittsburgh in the Round of 64, and used a late-game shooting surge to knock off top-seeded Gonzaga two days later.
After a comfortable win over La Salle in the Sweet Sixteen, the Shockers held off a late Ohio State rally to punch their Final Four ticket. Wichita State is the only team in the tournament to defeat both a No. 1 and a No.2 seed.
What They Do Well
No Final Four team plays a deeper rotation than Wichita State—the Shockers rank 45th nationally in bench minutes—and that depth is most apparent on defense, where Gregg Marshall's team ranks 25th in adjusted efficiency and 38th in two-point field-goal percentage allowed.
And with so many big bodies rotating through, it should come as no surprise that the Shockers are one of the nation's best glass-cleaning teams, sitting top 20 in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.
In size, depth and overall athleticism, Wichita State resembles a high-major team, and it plays a style befitting those qualities.
So don't expect the usual Cinderella fireworks from deep. The Shockers would much rather beat a power-conference team at its own game.
Where They're Weak
Wichita State shot a combined 22-of-48 (45.8 percent) from three in wins over Gonzaga and Ohio State, but on the season, Gregg Marshall's team is an average jump-shooting club.
The Shockers ranked 164th nationally in three-point shooting percentage this year and only about 60 slots better in effective field goal percentage.
Wichita State's best method of attack might be the offensive rebound, an area where Hall, Early and senior center Ehimen Orukpe all excel. But if opponents can keep that trio off the boards, Wichita State is relatively punchless.
Leading Scorer: Cleanthony Early (13.7 ppg)
Leading Rebounder: Carl Hall (6.9 rpg)
Assist Leader: Malcolm Armstead (3.9 apg)
Location: Syracuse, New York
Coach: Jim Boeheim
Record: 30-9, 11-7 (Big East)
Region: East, No. 4 Seed
How They Got Here: Beat Montana (13), 81-34; Beat California (12), 66-60; Beat Indiana (1), 61-50; Beat Marquette (3), 55-39
Season in Review
Syracuse entered the season ranked ninth—the Orange's third consecutive preseason top-10 nod—and lived up to the hype early, going 18-1 through mid-January. Sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams emerged as a Player of the Year contender while upperclassmen C.J. Fair and James Southerland provided needed complementary offense.
Southerland missed six games midseason due to an ongoing NCAA probe, and Syracuse seemed to lose its footing in the process. The Orange finished just 11-7 in conference play, including an embarrassing season-ending stretch that included losses in four of their last five.
Jim Boeheim's team regrouped in time to reach the finals of the Big East tournament, and extended that momentum into the NCAA tournament, where it knocked off top-seeded Indiana in a defensive tour de force.
What They Do Well
Relying on their trusty 2-3 zone, the Orange play some of the best interior defense in the country. Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita form an elite shot-blocking tandem, and Syracuse's perimeter length makes entry passes near impossible.
Jim Boeheim's team doesn't play all that fast on offense, but Carter-Williams picks his spots in transition, and when the Orange flood the open floor, they're a dangerous team.
Where They're Weak
Syracuse's attack can be downright putrid, especially when Carter-Williams and backcourt mate Brandon Triche are looking to shoot instead of facilitate. The duo launched a combined 280 three-point attempts this year, and connected on a miserable 29.2 percent of them.
And this isn't a team that gets much down low outside put-backs, so it's critical that Fair and Southerland knock down their jumpshots.
When those two struggle (as they did in a late-season loss to Georgetown), Syracuse is lucky to crack 55.
Leading Scorer: C.J. Fair (14.3 ppg)
Leading Rebounder: C.J. Fair (6.9 rpg)
Assist Leader: Michael Carter-Williams (7.4 apg)
Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Coach: John Beilein
Record: 30-7, 12-6 (Big Ten)
Region: South, No. 4 Seed
How They Got Here: Beat South Dakota State (13), 71-56; Beat VCU (5), 78-53; Beat Kansas (1), 87-85, OT; Beat Florida (3), 79-59
Season in Review
Michigan's seasons breaks cleanly into there parts: torrid start, mediocre middle, strong finish. The first part of that triptych saw John Beilein's Wolverines win their first 16 games (all non-conference) and eventually earn the program's first No. 1 AP ranking since 1992.
Against a loaded Big Ten, though, Michigan won just 13 of its 20 games (including the conference tournament) and suffered unsightly losses to rival Michigan State and bottom-feeder Penn State.
Despite looking young and fatigued in the regular season's latter half, the front-loaded Wolverines bounced back with arguably the most impressive tournament run of any Final Four team, knocking off VCU, Kansas and Florida in succession to reach Atlanta.
The Wolverines trailed by double digits late in the Kansas game, but rode the play of star point guard Trey Burke to a miraculous overtime win.
What They Do Well
In this era of defensive dominance, the Wolverines are that rare offensive juggernaut, and it starts with point guard Trey Burke.
The national Player of the Year frontrunner combines first-step quickness with unparalleled instincts to drive a Michigan offense that relies on its guardplay to create perimeter mismatches.
NBA progeny Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III form an uber-athletic wing combo, and freshman Nik Stauskas is as good a pure shooter as you'll find in the college game.
Add it up, and you have an offense that thrives in transition, plays composed half-court basketball, hits threes by the handful and does all of that without committing turnovers.
Where They're Weak
Freshman Mitch McGary is the team's only frontcourt player of note, and even he was considered something of a work in progress before breaking out in the NCAA tournament.
That's the natural consequence of playing what amounts to a four-guard starting lineup, and Michigan's 183rd ranked two-point field goal defense speaks to its noticeable lack of interior muscle.
The Wolverines also keep a pretty tight rotation, meaning Burke, Hardaway and Robinson III have to play heavy. When the shots aren't falling for those three, the Michigan offense is patently rudderless
Leading Scorer: Trey Burke (18.9 ppg)
Leading Rebounder: Mitch McGary (6.1 rpg)
Assist Leader: Trey Burke (6.8 apg)
Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Coach: Rick Pitino
Record: 33-5, 14-4 (Big East)
Region: Midwest, No. 1 Seed
How They Got Here: Beat North Carolina A&T (16), 79-48; Beat Colorado State (8), 82-56; Beat Oregon (12), 77-69; Beat Duke (2), 85-63
Season in Review
With the exception of three consecutive close losses in late January, Louisville has been among the nation's most dependable top-tier teams.
The Cardinals entered 2012-13 ranked No. 2 and finished in the exact same sport, a tribute to Louisville's consistent excellence.
Rick Pitino's team shared the Big East regular season title and won the conference tournament going away. In four NCAA games, the Cardinals were never seriously challenged.
What They Do Well
Louisville's foot speed is a sight to behold, and Rick Pitino puts it to good use with a trapping defense that ranks second nationally in turnover percentage.
Much of the same applies to Louisville's attack, a unit fueled by perimeter quickness and live-ball defensive disruption. Super sprite Russ Smith might be the single most feared open-court player of the decade.
Louisville's half-court game isn't as convincing, but center Gorgui Dieng makes up for the Cardinals' risk/reward tactics with some of the nation's best shot-blocking skills.
Where They're Weak
As alluded to earlier, Louisville isn't a great half-court offensive team.
If you can keep Smith and point guard Peyton Siva out of the lane—a big if, but still a possibility—the Cardinals aren't apt to beat you with the jump shot.
Smith is a famously streaky shooter and Siva won't scare teams from beyond. Reserve Luke Hancock is the only consistent deep threat for a team that ranks 209th in three-point shooting.
Dieng may be the offensive swing vote. The Sengalese big man is a bit more refined offensively than most shot blockers, and his work on the offensive boards is superlative.
But he's still growing into his game, and when he struggles, Louisville doesn't have a real low-post scoring threat.
Leading Scorer: Russ Smith (18.8 ppg)
Leading Rebounder: Gorgui Dieng (9.5 rpg)
Assist Leader: Peyton Siva (5.8 apg)
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
This is Marshall's 14th year as a head coach, and first Final Four appearance. As the head man at Winthrop from 1998 through 2007, Marshall made six trips to the NCAA tournament. In his six seasons at Wichita State, he's now won 25+ games four times.
Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
Now in his 37th season as a head coach—all of them spent at Syracuse, his alma mater—Boeheim ranks second all-time among men's Division I coaches in career wins. He's led the 'Cuse to nine regular-season Big East titles, four Final Four appearances and the program's only national championship.
John Beilein, Michigan
When Beilein arrived in Ann Arbor, the once-proud Wolverines had missed nine straight NCAA tournaments. The New York native had Michigan back to the Big Dance within two years of taking over. It was the latest in a series of turnarounds for Beilein, who snapped prolonged tournament droughts at Canisius (39 years), Richmond (6 years) and West Virginia (6 years) before taking the reins at U-M. This is Belein's first ever Final Four appearance.
Rick Pitino, Louisville
One of two coaches to lead three different programs past the Elite Eight, Pitino has long been one of the coaching profession's biggest names. A one-time standout at UMass, the native New Yorker won the 1996 NCAA championships while at Kentucky and has made 17 other NCAA tournament appearances. Don't ask about his time in the NBA.
Weight: 215 lbs.
Stats: 13.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 10.6 offensive rebounding percentage (7th in MVC)
Early, who coach Gregg Marshall describes as a "interesting bird," transferred to Wichita State this year from New York's Sullivan Community College and immediately became one of the Shockers' go-to scorers.
It's easy to see why given Early's NBA build and surprising perimeter quickness. And when Early is operating at full capacity, no Wichita State player makes opposing coaches more nervous.
Early's game has its holes, too. He's a streaky shooter with an underdeveloped post game. Some of that is to be expected for a player who did not play organized basketball until 11th grade, but it's a concern nonetheless.
Senior forward Carl Hall is probably Wichita State's best player, but Early is its most explosive. His play in the Final Four will go a long way toward deciding the Shockers' fate.
Weight: 185 lbs.
Position: Point guard
Stats: 12.1 ppg, 7.4 apg, 4.9 rpg, 4.8 steal percentage (13th nationally)
If Michael Carter-Williams had a jump shot he'd be the closest thing in college basketball to unstoppable. As is, he's already pretty hard to contain.
At 6'6", with a cartoonish wingspan, Carter-Williams is one of the nation's most gifted facilitators and perhaps the single most disruptive gap defender in the college game. Syracuse's offense revolves around his ability to penetrate and kick, with an emphasis on open-court play when the Orange's zone is forcing turnovers.
Weight: 190 lbs.
Position: Point guard
Stats: 18.9 ppg, 6.8 apg, 38.0 assist rate (Best in Big Ten)
If Trey Burke wasn't already the best player in the country, his performance against Kansas in the Regional Semifinal just about sealed it.
With his team on the brink, Burke poured in eight points over the game's final 1:16—including an instantly legendary 30-foot three-pointer—to force overtime. He then scored Michigan's first five points in the extra session to spur a miraculous comeback win.
It was the latest in a series of heroic performances from the Ohio-born sophomore, who has put such distance between himself and the rest of the nation's point guard crop that the "Who's best?" conversation is all but null and void.
Nothing about Burke's physical profile is overwhelming, but he's exceptionally fluid with the ball in his hand, and makes fantastic decisions in the half court. And when the shot clock is low, his step-back jumper is one of the college game's great bailout options.
Weight: 165 lbs.
Stats: 18.8 ppg, 3.0 apg, 4.3 steal percentage (Fourth best in Big East)
Even at the highest level of amateur basketball, Russ Smith is noticeably quicker than each and every one of his peers.
Speaking purely from an aesthetic stand point, he might be the single most exciting player in the game.
Smith's combination of foot speed, court vision and scoring zeal leads to instant offense almost every time he gets the ball in space. And on defense, his constant activity on the ball makes him one of America's premier perimeter irritants.
The New York native can be a bit reckless at times, and his jump shot isn't worthy of the frequency with which he shoots it.
But Rick Pitino will live with inconsistencies given Smith's singular athletic ability.
Wichita State's only prior Final Four appearance came in 1965 under Gary Thompson. Over the course of 106 seasons in college basketball's top division, the Shockers have compiled a .550 winning percentage to go along with nine NCAA tournament appearances.
Prominent NBA alum include Antoine Carr, Xavier McDaniel and Warren Jabali.
This is Syracuse's fifth Final Four appearance, and fourth since Jim Boeheim took over the program in 1976. As a charter member of the Big East, the Orange have collected 15 conference championships (regular-season and tournament combined) and made 36 tournament appearances (27 since joining the conference).
Prominent NBA alum include Carmelo Anthony, Dave Bing, Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas.
Michigan is making its seventh Final Four appearance, and first since 1993. The Wolverines won their only national championship in 1989, sparking a run of three title-game appearances over five seasons. All-time, Michigan has made the NCAA tournament 24 times.
Prominent NBA alum include Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Glen Rice, Jamal Crawford, Juwan Howard, Rudy Tomjanovich and Cazzie Russell.
The only returning Final Four team in this year's quartet, Louisville is appearing in its third national semifinal under current coach Rick Pitino and 10th overall. The program captured NCAA titles in 1980 and 1986 under Denny Crum and has qualified for 10 of the last 11 NCAA tournaments.
Prominent NBA alum include Pervis Ellison, Wes Unseld, Derek Smith, Junior Bridgeman, Rodney McCray and Jack Coleman.
Michigan won't score against Syracuse the way it did against Florida, but the Wolverines still have the right personnel to attack Cuse's zone.
The Orange dominated Indiana with their perimeter length, but Michigan—while not a large team overall—has size on the outside in Tim Hardaway Jr. (6'6"), Glenn Robinson III (6'6") and Nik Stauskas (6'6"). Those three have the head space to shoot over Syracuse's rangy defense, and Trey Burke should be quick enough off the bounce to get each of them good looks.
It won't be easy, but the Wolverines should have enough firepower to advance.
Michigan -- 68
Syracuse -- 65
Wichita State will need to play its best game, and even then I'm not sure the Shockers can beat Louisville.
The first challenge for Gregg Marshall's team will be beating Rick Pitino's press, a tall task considering that guards Malcolm Armstead and Demetric Williams both have turnover rates north of 20 percent.
Then the Shockers have to hope they can find high-percentage looks against a long Louisville front line that should have no problem matching up against the 6'8" Cleanthony Early.
And when the shots aren't falling, it'll be imperative that Wichita State works hard on the offensive boards to both collect second-chance points and keep Louisville from springing out in transition.
Do all that, and the game should be close. But Louisville is too deep, and too balance to let this one slip away.
Louisville -- 70
Wichita State -- 59
National Final: Michigan-Louisville
From a tactical standpoint, this match-up bodes well for Michigan.
The Wolverines have the ball handlers needed to break Louisville's pressure—see their win against VCU for evidence—and when they do, John Beilein's guys should get more than a few easy transition opportunities.
But they'll have to convert at a high rate, because Louisville is deeper, more experienced and far tougher in the half court than anything the Wolverines saw against Shaka Smart's Rams.
Michigan has fought a lot harder to get to this point, and will have to fight a lot harder in its semifinal to reach the title game.
Fatigue should be the difference, and Louisville will pull away late for its third national championship.
Louisville -- 73
Michigan -- 66