With the Final Four set, can Wooden Award finalist Trey Burke carry his team to a championship, or will other stars stand in the way?
The Final Four has plenty of talent remaining. Individual matchups will be vital for each team, as players hungry for a championship will capitalize on offensive miscues and defensive lapses. Here are the most important matchups to watch for.
Chane Behanan (UL) vs. Carl Hall or Cleanthony Early (WSU)
Forward Chane Behanan stands five inches shorter than 6'11" center Gorgui Dieng, but he is the second-tallest starter for the Cardinals. Behanan is an athletic big man, but he forfeits two inches to both Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early.
In Louisville’s unique zone defense, Behanan will switch back and forth with Dieng to match up with Hall or Early inside. Both players were instrumental in the Shockers’ victory over Ohio State. Behanan will have to play good physical defense and rebound well to mitigate their scoring. He might even be more important defensively than prolific shot-blocker Dieng this weekend.
Trey Burke (UM) vs. Michael Carter-Williams (SU)
It will be fascinating to watch two of the best sophomore guards in the nation play against each other.
Burke will need to make smart passes against Carter-Williams and Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, since he is significantly shorter than the Orange’s point guard (six inches). Syracuse’s defense needs to continue causing a plethora of turnovers. If they don’t against Michigan, they’ll have a hard time stopping Burke’s arsenal of moves.
On the other end, Burke needs to create pressure and pilfer the ball from Carter-Williams. Carter-Williams has only nine turnovers in the tournament so far, but Burke specializes in clutch steals.
Carl Hall (WSU) vs. Gorgui Dieng (UL)
Both of these players are great shot-blockers and rebounders.
Hall and Dieng power their teams inside, and the battle between them for ownership of the paint will be vital.
Keep in mind that Dieng has three inches on Hall, and he had four blocks against talented Duke. Hall had six huge blocks against Ohio State, but he might be overmatched against Louisville’s center. Whoever can establish their presence inside will give their team a huge boost.
Mitch McGary (UM) vs. C.J. Fair and James Southerland (SU)
On the inside of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone are quality big men C.J. Fair and James Southerland. Their goal is to shut down freshman Mitch McGary.
McGary’s emergence has been one of the big stories of the tournament. He recorded monster double-doubles against VCU and Kansas, while narrowly missing double-doubles against South Dakota State and Florida.
Fair and Southerland are active inside and record both steals and blocks. They are hoping McGary doesn't mimic Marquette forward Davante Gardner. Gardner used spacing to successfully exploit Syracuse’s zone twice this season. McGary could very easily do the same thing in the Final Four.
Peyton Siva (UL) vs. Malcolm Armstead (WSU)
Malcolm Armstead has received a lot of positive press in the media for his hard work while playing basketball at Wichita State (via Yahoo! Sports).
Somehow, the point guard’s terrible shooting against elite schools has been overlooked.
Armstead shot 2-for-9 against Gonzaga and 6-for-21 against Ohio State. That’s 26.7 percent shooting against the best teams the Shockers have faced.
Peyton Siva wreaks havoc on the defensive end. He is averaging 2.2 steals per game this season, and his pressure is relentless.
If Armstead can overcome Siva and the other Louisville guards’ defensive pressure, Wichita State has a chance.
Nik Stauskas (UM) vs. Syracuse guards (SU)
Syracuse’s zone absolutely demolished Marquette’s offense.
Unfortunately for Syracuse, Michigan is a far better shooting team than Marquette.
It will be interesting to see if Syracuse can stop Nik Stauskas. Stauskas was on fire against Florida, shooting 6-for-6 from three-point range.
Though forward Davante Gardner found holes in Syracuse’s zone, Marquette’s guards failed to do so. The Golden Eagles had terrible spacing and shot only 12.5 percent from long range against the Orange.
Michigan’s freshman sharpshooter is averaging 44.9 percent from downtown. Syracuse’s zone might not be able to stop Stauskas.
Russ Smith (UL) vs. Carl Hall (WSU)
That’s right, Carl Hall makes his third appearance on this list. He is the most important player on the floor for the Shockers, and his shot-blocking ability makes him the top candidate to stop Russ Smith.
Russ-diculous takes the ball to the rim with ease, and he is averaging 18.9 points per game. To stop him, Wichita State will need Carl Hall to influence drives into the paint.
Smith has an odd propensity for finishing with his right hand even if he is on the left side of the basket. If Hall can take note of that, he may be able to block or alter some of Smith’s drives.
On the other hand, Russ Smith has been scoring all season long for No. 1 overall Louisville, and he showed the ability to finish over Duke's 6'10" Mason Plumlee.
The question may soon be if anyone, including Trey Burke, can stop Russ Smith and the top-seeded Cardinals.
*All statistics provided by ESPN.com.