Let it be known up front that this slideshow dissecting the strengths and weakness of the four remaining NCAA tournament teams is a necessarily nitpicky one—at least as it pertains to weakness.
As is always the case this time of year, we're left with four verifiably strong teams, each a beneficiary of sustained momentum and recency bias. In other words, it ain't easy to pick this quartet apart.
We also know, however, that three of them will lose. Trying to suss out the attributable characteristics of each that might lead to said loss is part of the task in the slides ahead.
Oh, and we'll also talk about the good stuff, too.
Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of KenPom.com.
None of the four teams remaining rebound as well as Wichita State, and it isn't even close. The Shockers rank 18th in offensive rebounding percentage and 11th on the defensive glass, and senior forward Carl Hall is one of the nation's best at cleaning up his teammate's misses.
Wichita State hasn't rebounded quite as well in tournament play as it did during the regular season—perhaps to be expected against tougher competition—but the Shockers still reeled at least 33 percent of their misses against Ohio State, Gonzaga and Pittsburgh, a more-than-healthy rate given those teams' rebounding abilities.
As ESPN's Peter Keating explained in a recent piece on Wichita State, the Shockers defense isn't just good (ranked 23rd nationally in adjusted efficiency), it's disruptive. Gregg Marshall's team ranks 54th in steal percentage, regularly producing the kind of live-ball mistakes that make for easy offense on the other end.
The emergence of freshman Fred Van Vleet during tournament play is just the latest example of Wichita State's stunning depth. The Shockers incurred a rash of injuries early, but it's made them stronger in the long run. Eleven active Wichita State players average more than 10 minutes a game, and while that rotation has shortened some during the postseason, Marshall is still comfortable giving major run to eight or nine different guys.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom about mid-major teams, Wichita State boasts plenty of size—inside and out. In fact, the Shockers are second only to Syracuse among the remaining four teams in effective height. And when Marshall calls for 7-foot shot-blocker Ehimen Orukpe off the bench, Wichita State is a menace in the paint.
Nothing to Lose
The Shockers have gone out of their way to distance themselves from the "Cinderella" label, but let's be honest here: Wichita State is playing with house money. No matter what happens from here on out, this team has secured its place as one of the greatest in school history. And all the future feting that comes with that label is already guaranteed.
If they win, it's gravy. If they lose, it's still a season for the ages.
Now contrast that with a Louisville team that lost in the national semifinal a year ago and comes to Atlanta as the clear title-game favorite. The Shockers should no doubt be the looser team.
Who Carries the Load?
We talked about Wichita State's depth as an asset in the prior slide, but the flip side is that the Shockers don't have a standout scorer. Cleanthony Early is probably the most gifted player on Gregg Marshall's roster, but four single-digit scoring outputs in the last seven games tells you all you need to know about his consistency.
The Shockers have had six different high scorers in the last 10 contests alone, and it's hard to know night to night where the scoring will come from.
Do They Have the Horses?
Wichita State is an athletic, long, tough-minded mid-major, but you'd be deluding yourself if you thought the Shockers are as good as Michigan, Syracuse and Louisville on an athlete-by-athlete basis. Rail all you want about parity, but Wichita State doesn't have the athletic ability of its Final Four peers. Any NBA draft board will tell you as much.
Too Many TOs
Wichita State has the worst turnover rate of the remaining quartet, and that could be particularly troublesome against Louisville's press.
A Devilish D
Louisville is the best defensive team in the country, bar none. Adjusted efficiency ratings will tell you as much, but so too will the eye test. The Cardinals are a blur when they spring into their press traps, and they're almost as impressive in the half court thanks to center Gorgui Dieng.
And with freak athletes like Montrezl Harrell coming off the bench, good luck trying to wear Louisville down.
If it didn't sound so cliche, I'd say Louisville's transition offense is poetry in motion. Instead, I'll say it's really, really good. Junior Russ Smith is about as unstoppable in the open floor as any college guard of the past decade.
A Legend on the Sidelines
This is Louisville coach Rick Pitino's seventh trip to the Final Four, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that he's made those seven trips with three different programs (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville) using vastly different styles and personnel groupings. There might not be a more tactically versatile coach in the college game, and there's little doubt that Pitino will have his team ready for the challenge ahead.
But Can They Shoot?
Louisville ranked 232nd this year in three-point shooting percentage, and outside junior Luke Hancock (pictured above), the Cardinals don't have much in the way of a dependable deep threat.
Against Duke, Louisville made its living at the cup, but if a team can keep guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva from penetrating, Rick Pitino's club doesn't have much of a bailout half-court offense. And losing Kevin Ware (15-of-37 from beyond) won't help.
In other words, if you can corral the Cardinals into a half-court game, their offense can be contained.
Pressure to Perform
The other three teams in this tournament could lose tomorrow and go home reasonably happy. Not Louisville. The Cardinals are the only No. 1 seed left in the tournament and the only returning Final Four team. They are the only team operating under "title or bust" expectations, and how they wear that burden could go a long way toward determining their fate.
That Damn 2-3 Zone
Times change. Coaches leave. Tactical fads come and go. But no matter how fast the college basketball world spins, you can always count on Syracuse's Jim Boeheim running his trusty 2-3 zone and eating opponents alive.
This year is no exception. All five of Syracuse's starters are 6'4" or taller, and the Orange use that length to terrorize opposing ball-handlers and punish would-be finishers.
Syracuse ranks among the nation's top 10 in block percentage, steal percentage and three-point accuracy allowed. So far in tournament play, not one of 'Cuse's opponents has scored more than 0.88 points per possession.
Translation: They good.
Six Feet Six Inches of Point Guard
Michael Carter-Williams won't be the best point guard on the floor when Syracuse plays Michigan on Saturday—that honor belongs to Wolverine PG Trey Burke—but he will be the most potential-laden.
When Carter-Williams plays well, he is a full-court nuisance. On defense, the 6'6" floor general is a steal-collecting machine. And when the ball is in his hands, the Massachusetts native has the length and agility to break down almost any defense.
Though it probably oversimplifies things a bit, one does get the feeling that the Orange will only go as far as MCW takes them.
Syracuse's roster presents an odd contrast between great shooters who shoot a lot and bad shooters who shoot a lot. And it's hard to understand why the bad shooters keep shooting.
Brandon Triche, Michael Carter-Williams and Trevor Cooney have all attempted more than 100 three-point shots this year, and each is shooting worse than 30 percent from distance.
Meanwhile, James Southerland and C.J. Fair connect on greater than 40 percent of their shots, and they have combined on 267 attempts from deep.
For the season, Syracuse doesn't have a single player shooting in the 30s from three-point range, and the result is a team that vacillates between efficient and dreadful on the offensive end.
Thanks to the tactical details of Jim Boeheim's preferred defensive alignment, the Orange have always been among Division I's worst defensive rebounding teams. This year, Syracuse ranks 279th in defensive rebounding percentage, which is actually a 62-slot improvement on last season.
Odd as it may sound, oftentimes the best way to attack 'Cuse's zone is to miss a shot first.
The Best Player on the Floor
Michigan point guard Trey Burke has been a revelation this season, scoring 18.8 points per game, dishing out 6.8 dimes per contest and doing all of that while improbably posting the team's third-lowest turnover rate.
The Ohio-born sophomore is very simply the country's best player. And when you mix "best player" with "primary ball-handler," the result is an offense that's near impossible to stop.
Burke, of course, hasn't done it alone. It helps that he's surrounded by ace shooters like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas, both of whom shoot better than 38 percent from deep.
In fact, Michigan is the only elite three-point shooting team left in the tournament field, and the Wolverines' ability to get out in transition behind Burke and probe for their shot in the half court is a big reason the club ranks first in adjusted offensive efficiency.
Freshman forward Mitch McGary has been the breakout player of the tournament. His stunning blend of athleticism and bulk inside has taken Michigan's already high-octane offense to new heights.
All year, John Beilein has looked for a capable interior finisher to complement Burke's driving ability. McGary was always the highest-ceiling option, and it would appear he's starting to reach his potential.
Michigan prefers to play small, and that lineup choice leaves the Wolverines vulnerable to capable interior scorers.
Freshman Mitch McGary, sophomore Jon Horford and junior Jordan Morgan essentially take turns manning the lone forward position, and neither is the type of defender that can handle that task by his lonesome.
So it should come as no surprise then that the Wolverines have a below-average two-point field-goal defense and the worst adjusted defensive efficiency rating among the remaining quartet.
Lack of Depth
Michigan uses less bench minutes than all but 14 D-I teams. And although backup guard Spike Albrecht has been a nice surprise so far this tournament, there's no hiding the fact that the Wolverines need Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III to play 35 minutes or more in every single game.
Michigan has survived the tournament gauntlet so far relying heavily on those four, but one wonders how much longer their legs will hold.
The Wolverines are the youngest team left in the field, and one of the youngest in all Division I. Their coach, John Beilein, has never been to the Final Four.
Perhaps youthful naivete will carry the day. Or perhaps the Baby Blues will look a bit lost in the lights.