After a wild Elite Eight, only four teams remain alive in the NCAA tournament. Two more will be knocked out of contention this weekend, but the true focus is on which teams will ultimately battle it out for the national championship.
Louisville, Wichita State, Michigan and Syracuse all boast star-studded teams regardless of their seed, so each squad has the ability to win it all at this juncture. The Cardinals and Shockers will battle for supremacy of the left side of the bracket, while the Wolverines and Orange will decide which No. 4 plays for all the marbles.
The Final Four matchups could go either way as it depends on which key contributors play up to their potential on the big stage. Here are three top-level stars who will have a hand in pushing their team into the national championship game.
Louisville junior guard Russ Smith has been among the most explosive and productive players in college basketball all season long, but he has taken his game to another level during the NCAA tournament.
The lightning-quick Smith averaged nearly 19 points per game during the regular season and was truly the engine that made the Cardinals go. That has remained true throughout the tourney as Smith is now producing at a clip of 26 points per contest.
Wichita State is an extremely strong defensive squad, but most of that is due to the front line. Senior guard Malcolm Armstead will probably be charged with manning up Smith because of his stockier frame, but Smith is so fast that it will be difficult for Armstead to stay in front of him. Smith is also a demon on the defensive end and could give Armstead fits when he attempts to bring the ball up the court.
Louisville has a deep team with a lot of talent, but none of that matters if Smith doesn't play up to expectations. The offense runs through Smith for the most part, and it will be very difficult for others to get involved if he isn't banging on all cylinders. The Shockers may be Smith's toughest test from a defensive perspective, but he has played like a man possessed and should continue to do so in the Final Four.
If not for point guard Trey Burke, there is no chance Michigan would be in the Final Four with a chance to advance to the national championship game. Burke hit a game-tying three late in regulation against Kansas to push the game to overtime in the Sweet 16, and the Wolverines ultimately prevailed.
Burke racked up 23 points and 10 assists in all against the Jayhawks and truly willed his team to victory. The Elite Eight win over Florida was more of a team effort, but Burke ensured that the offense ran efficiently from start to finish.
Burke is easily the most complete point guard remaining in the tournament and he is the best overall point guard in the nation for that matter. He averaged nearly 19 points per game during the regular season, which is obviously a vital part of his game, but getting his teammates involved is equally important. In addition, Burke has at least seven assists in each tournament game thus far, and that is a major reason why the Wolverines are playing flawless team basketball at the moment.
Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and others have contributed to Michigan's run through the tourney, but Burke is the facilitator who makes sure everything is working. Syracuse's zone defense has stymied teams throughout the NCAA tournament, so Burke has a major challenge on his hands.
He has managed to decode defenses throughout the season, though, and he is the one point guard out there who should be able to beat the zone with creative passes and drives to the basket.
Which player will perform best in the Final Four?
One of the keys to Wichita State's Cinderella run through the NCAA tournament has been its size, athleticism and rebounding ability down low. Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall in particular have cleaned the glass and made life miserable for opposing frontcourts. Louisville is the one team that has the tools to neutralize Early and Hall, though. In addition to the stout Chane Behanan, the Cardinals boast a behemoth inside in the form of Gorgui Dieng.
Dieng really elevated his game in the NCAA tournament last year and he has continued his ascent in 2013. At 6'11" and with excellent anticipation, he can be nearly impossible to solve in the paint for opposing offensive players. Not only did he average nearly 10 boards per contest during the regular season, but he also racked up 2.5 blocks per game as well.
Even when Dieng doesn't record a block on the stat sheet, he often changes shooting angles near the rim and causes misses. As good as his numbers are, they don't tell the whole story about him as a player.
The key to Dieng's game is staying out of foul trouble, and although he fouled out last game against Duke, he has done a nice job of staying in the game. Provided he can play a strong defensive game without fouling, Wichita State could be in for a nightmarish day. The Shockers have pushed around their opponents thus far, but Dieng simply won't allow that to happen.
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