With the teams arriving and the Denny's Slam Dunk Contest getting things started on Thursday, the Final Four has officially begun in Atlanta.
Detroit's Doug Anderson already became the weekend's first star with a jaw-dropping array of ferocious slams, but the true monoliths will be crowned starting on Saturday. And while we don't yet know who will follow in Anderson's footsteps, we do know who teams most need to do so.
One side of the bracket pits the tournament's longstanding favorite against its only remaining Cinderella. The No. 1 Louisville Cardinals will take on ninth-seeded Wichita State in Saturday's first game, where the roles may have been switched for mainstream audiences. While most would usually pull for the Shockers, Kevin Ware's injury—and the touching aftermath by Cardinals players—has made Louisville an emotional favorite.
The other side will see two No. 4 seeds that looked dead in the water at the beginning of March. Both Syracuse and Michigan stumbled to the end of their regular seasons, only to suddenly return to past glory once the bright light shined.
But with the world watching each of these four teams, it will be up to their stars to again rise to the occasion. For that reason, here is a complete breakdown of every team's most vital player heading into the Final Four.
No. 1 Louisville Cardinals vs. No. 9 Wichita State Shockers
Louisville: G Russ Smith
It's hard to find any player who has ascended to a higher level than Smith this March. The junior guard has scored no fewer than 21 points in any tournament game thus far, including a critical 23 points in the Cardinals' drubbing of Duke in the Elite Eight.
What's been most impressive about Smith's play is his efficiency. Though he led Louisville in scoring at 18.1 points per game during the regular season, his shooting and shot selection left much to be desired. Smith had a shooting percentage of 40.8 prior to the postseason, which is only "good" when compared to his dreadful rates as a freshman and sophomore.
A light has switched in Smith's system during the Big Dance. Four games into the tournament, and each one he's exceeded his regular-season shooting percentage. He's knocking down 54.1 percent of his shots overall or the tourney, helping boost his overall average while turning the Cardinals into an offensive juggernaut.
A very good offense during the regular season, Louisville's efficiency flew through the roof in regional play. The Cardinals have scored nearly 81 points per game during the NCAA tournament, a seven-plus-point upswing over their regular-season average. They have been more efficient, scoring no fewer than 1.13 points per possession in any of their games, per Ken Pomeroy.
Very much of this uptick is thanks to Smith.
He's been extremely aggressive driving to the cup, drawing a bevy of shooting fouls that result in always-welcomed free throws. Smith has attempted 10 or more shots at the charity stripe in each of the past three games, which could be critical against a Wichita State team that loves to hack shooters.
While a season-average performance from the junior star would probably still equal a win all things considered, going into a slump isn't exactly ideal one game prior to a national championship.
Wichita State: G Malcolm Armstead
Talk about an unforeseen ascent. Heading into the Big Dance, all the praise being heaped upon Wichita State pertained mainly to its forward play—and rightfully so. Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall had led the Shockers throughout the regular season, finishing top-two on the team in both points and rebounds.
On a team that was defense first, rebounding second and offense third, they were the two players who kept Wichita State chugging on that tertiary goal.
That's all changed in March. Early remains very much a part of the offense and is actually exceeding his regular-season points totals, but Hall has become buried deep in the Shockers' scoring arsenal—fourth on the team in the Big Dance heading into Saturday night.
Hall's replacement, the man who has even supplanted Early, has been guard Malcolm Armstead. Content to see his forwards reap the attention during the cold winter months, spring has brought forth a never-before-seen level of aggression from Armstead. A diminutive scorer during the regular season, Armstead leads the Shockers with 15.5 points per game during the Big Dance. He's been burrowing his way deep into defenses, ascending with a critical moment just when you think Wichita State's run is going down in flames.
That said, aggression hasn't necessarily equaled efficiency for Armstead. He's jacked up his fair share of wretched shots, which have contributed to his 35.6 field-goal percentage in the tourney. Included in those performances was a 6-of-21 display of wretchedness against Ohio State.
In most cases, a performance like that would lead to a long film room reaming. Armstead is taking shots away from teammates, ones that could have led to easier baskets.
But if it ain't broke—and it hasn't been for Wichita State this March—it's hard to tell Armstead to fix anything. Armstead may well shoot the Shockers out of the national championship game, but he's equally likely to shoot them in.
No. 4 Michigan Wolverines vs. No. 4 Syracuse Orange
Michigan: G Trey Burke
The Associated Press told us something on Thursday we've known just about all season long—Trey Burke is the best player in college basketball. Burke won the AP Player of the Year award, ending speculation that was seemingly already cemented in the Sweet 16.
Of the iconic moments we'll remember from the NCAA tournament, first will be Florida Gulf Coast's scintillating run. Second will be Burke pulling up from 30 feet out and knocking down a cold-blooded three-pointer with no regard for human life that ultimately helped spur the Wolverines' overtime victory over Kansas. It was a shot that Burke will remember for the rest of his life and may be the moment we all point to a Michigan national title run.
Burke wasn't at his best in his encore performance, putting up 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists against Florida. The Gators defense has been superb all season long and represented arguably Burke's biggest test of the tournament; he earned a "C."
That said, Florida is about to be supplanted on the "biggest test" list by Syracuse—and it's not close. The Orange's swarming 2-3 defense has been phenomenal during the NCAA tournament, swallowing up opposing offenses with shocking ease. They held Indiana, the nation's most efficient offense, to a season-low 50 points and followed that up by allowing just 39 points to Marquette in the Elite Eight.
Those 39 points were the second-fewest allowed all tournament long—behind only the 34 Syracuse gave up to Montana in the round of 64.
Much has been made about Syracuse's zone defense, and it's almost unfair to call it a 2-3. Jim Boeheim preaches an amorphic version of the 2-3, where his team can play a standard set, switch to matchup zone and completely adjust to what the offense is doing. What makes this year's team so potent is its athletes all over the floor.
Nevertheless, the key to beating any good zone has always been shooting. Syracuse was able to suffocate Marquette because the Golden Eagles had no shooters. That won't be the case for Michigan.
Like his remaining teammates in the backcourt, Burke's shot-making will be crucial. Mitch McGary will have his hands full with Rakeem Christmas and C.J. Fair down in the post, the duo that helps Syracuse block shots at a higher rate than any other team in the country. McGary has been brilliant in March, but his (and Glenn Robinson III's to an extent) slack will have to be picked up by Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nick Stauskas.
Assuming Hardaway and Stauskas get the job done, the responsibility will be Burke's to finish it off. The Wolverines can stay in the game with secondary stars making shots. They can only win if Burke ascends the way he did against Kansas.
Syracuse: G Michael Carter-Williams
The oldest March Madness saying in the books is that every game comes down to guard play. Like most cliches, this will be born out on Saturday—especially in the later game.
We've already touched on Burke's necessity, but Carter-Williams remains one of the most intriguing players left in the Dance. He controls the tempo on both ends of the floor perhaps more than any other player in the tournament.
Defensively, he's the perimeter anchor to the Orange's aforementioned amorphism. At 6'6", he is big and long enough to guard three positions on the floor, and his athleticism and quickness is otherworldly for someone his size. Syracuse creates turnovers at a top-20 rate, which is a statistical anomaly spurred by Carter-Williams' length. He's able to tip passes on the outside no other guard can reach, as evidenced by his nearly three steals per game this season.
Offensively, Carter-Williams' role can oftentimes be just as amorphic. He remains first and foremost a distributor, a fantastic passer of the ball whose vision at the point guard spot is unmatched. Carter-Williams has dropped as many as 16 assists this season and had six against Marquette, but has picked his spots in March—sometimes even taking over as a scorer.
Like he did against Indiana, where his 24 points spurred a victory, Carter-Williams may be able to take on more of a scorer's role on Saturday. Michigan is a team that mixes a little bit of everything in its defensive system, but the results have been inconsistent at best. They boast few true stoppers on that end of the floor, and the Wolverines saw their defensive efficiency dip like an anvil dropped off the Eiffel Tower late in the season.
They've improved in March, but help defense is still a massive weakness. Though Carter-Williams still shouldn't shoot, like, ever from beyond 15 feet, he's an expert at blowing past defenders off the dribble.
If Carter-Williams can get into an offensive rhythm early, it could be critical. The Orange hemorrhage points whenever Carter-Williams is off his game, which is something their defense might not be able to atone for against Michigan.
All advanced stats are via KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
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