And then there were four.
Sixty-four teams have been eliminated from the NCAA tournament, and the four squads still dancing have a date with destiny in Atlanta this weekend. With two No. 4 seeds and a No. 9 seed among the remaining contenders, predicting the outcome of the tournament is a bit like predicting the first five rounds—nearly impossible, but certainly entertaining.
No. 1 Louisville and No. 9 Wichita State will tip off the Final Four action at 6:09 p.m. ET on Saturday, followed by an 8:49 p.m. ET showdown between No. 4 Michigan and No. 4 Syracuse. Each contest is packed with scintillating matchups, electric players and captivating storylines.
We’ll preview each matchup, including our picks to square off on April 8 for the national championship.
No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 9 Wichita State
There’s little to be said for the Cardinals that hasn’t already been said. Louisville has been the strongest team in the tournament and its Elite Eight victory over Duke was both impressive and inspiring.
Rick Pitino’s squad rallied around injured teammate Kevin Ware in a big way, cruising past Duke in an emotion-soaked 85-63 victory that should put its opponents on alert. Louisville won’t be an easy team to beat, especially in the Final Four.
Wichita State deserves its share of praises for a magical tournament run as well. The Shockers took down No. 1 Gonzaga in the third round in an up-and-down affair and silenced No. 2 Ohio State 70-66 in the Elite Eight, both of which prove they can’t be taken lightly by any opponent.
Still, Wichita State has yet to face a team as strong as Louisville, and its tournament run will likely end at the hands of the Cardinals on Saturday in Atlanta.
As well as Malcolm Armstead and Cleanthony Early have played through the first five rounds, neither is playing as well as Russ Smith. The 6’1” junior is averaging 26 points per game the tournament, including a 31-point effort against Oregon in the Sweet 16.
Smith and senior guard Peyton Siva have been a remarkable duo, and Wichita State doesn’t have an enviable task in trying to shut them down. Paired with junior center Gorgui Dieng, the Cardinals play a deadly inside-out game that has been unstoppable in the tournament.
It won’t come as much of a surprise, but we’re picking Louisville to win this game in decisive fashion.
Prediction: Louisville 78, Wichita State 63
No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 4 Syracuse
Both of Saturday’s contests will be good games to watch, but Michigan and Syracuse should provide a much more competitive affair than Wichita State and Louisville.
Syracuse has been a defensive powerhouse in the tournament, holding opponents to an average of 45.75 points through the first five rounds. Its 2-3 zone has stifled opposing offenses and created the perfect storm for shutting down Michigan’s explosive offense.
The Wolverines haven’t enjoyed the same success at the defensive end (63.25 PPG), but they haven’t exactly bled points to opposing offenses. Excluding Kansas, no opponent has scored more than 59 points against Michigan in the tournament.
For Michigan to upend the Orange on Saturday, it will have to get consistent efforts from several key scorers. Sophomore guard Trey Burke will get his share of looks, but he also has to play a facilitative role in creating scoring opportunities for Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas. The only way to beat the Orange’s zone will be to create rapid ball movement and quality outside shooting chances for everyone on the floor.
As strong as Michigan’s offense has been this season, expect this game to be a much more defensive affair. C.J. Fair and Michael Carter-Williams have to step up with big performances at the offensive end for a squad that hasn’t been able to score many points in the last three rounds (60.7 PPG).
Syracuse got lucky in facing a poor-shooting Marquette team in the Elite Eight, but the Orange won’t be as fortunate on Saturday. Michigan will pick apart Syracuse’s zone with crisp outside shooting and play well enough at the defensive end to limit Syracuse’s scoring opportunities in a close victory.
Prediction: Michigan 68, Syracuse 63
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