The time to crown college basketball's national champion has finally arrived.
With all of the pageantry and buildup out of the way, Saturday evening's game between the Louisville Cardinals and Wichita State Shockers will finally kick off what should be a fantastic Final Four weekend in Atlanta.
Based purely on their seeds—No. 1 in the entire tournament for Louisville, No. 9 in the West Region for Wichita State—one could probably surmise the two paths these schools took to make the Final Four.
All the puns in the world cannot signify how shocking the Shockers' run was.
Beating Gonzaga and Pittsburgh in the opening weekend was one thing.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has a peanut-level allergy to March victories, and the Bulldogs were pegged as the nation's weakest No. 1 seed by just about everyone with an opinion on such things.
But last weekend's double-up on dominant victories over La Salle and Ohio State was something to behold. Wichita State looked more comfortable on the national stage than the Buckeyes in the Elite Eight, never once seeming like a team that was lucking their way to advancement.
There aren't any people on the planet who would categorize Louisville's run as lucky.
The Cardinals were the nation's most dominant team heading into the Big Dance, and they have only continued that streak during the NCAA tournament.
And the way Louisville battled back after Kevin Ware's gruesome injury against Duke in the Elite Eight proves Rick Pitino's squad is nothing if not resilient.
With mere hours before tip-off, let's take one last look at Saturday's opening Final Four matchup.
When: Saturday, April 6, at 6:09 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta
Stream: March Madness Live
Keys to Victory
Louisville: Continue Following the Righteous Path
For all the talk about Florida Gulf Coast, Trey Burke and all other storylines in this tournament, the true story of the 2013 Big Dance has been one of dominance.
The Cardinals have won their four tourney games by a combined 87 points this March, a tour de force that has only kept the good times rolling from the regular season.
Overall, Louisville has won 14 straight games.
All but two of those victories have been by a 12-point or greater margin. Included in those triumphs have been Syracuse (twice), Notre Dame (twice) and Duke. This hasn't been an easy slate—it never has been in the Artist Formerly Known as the Big East—and Louisville has passed with flying colors.
During the Big Dance, the script has remained the same; it's just been a massively enhanced version. The poster child for that increased efficiency has been Russ Smith.
The team's leading scorer during the regular season, Smith has morphed into a massively enhanced shooter and aggressive force this March.
He's scored more than 20 points in each of Louisville's four victories and (more importantly) has done so efficiently. Smith is shooting right around 54 percent for the tournament, a rate that's over 10 percent better than his season-long average.
With the junior guard also been nabbing steals like his hands are covered with honey, which will be critical in Saturday's contest.
Smith's steal rate is the Patient Zero for a dirty little truth about this matchup: Louisville soars where Wichita State falters.
Running their vaunted full-court pressure defense, the Cardinals have forced turnovers and steals at the second-highest rate in the nation—trailing only Virginia Commonwealth. The Shockers rank 144th in turnover rate, the worst among Final Four teams by a pretty solid margin.
As a 10-point favorite, all Louisville needs to do is keep up its current pace. No frills or anything extra needed. If the Cardinals play their game and simply turn in a season-average performance, then they should have no trouble advancing to the title game.
Wichita State: Malcolm Armstead Must Ascend Under the Spotlight
Whether by design or simply the whims of the Shockers guard, Wichita State's offensive performance has become increasingly tied to the play of Malcolm Armstead. The pass-first guard the Shockers saw in the regular season has subsided, replaced with a ball-dominant volume scorer that's helped spur a Final Four run.
Armstead has scored 15.5 points per game thus far in the Big Dance while taking a shade under 15 field goal attempts a night.
Those rates dwarf the senior guard's regular-season rates of 10.4 points and 8.9 shot attempts per game. His newfound shoot-first persona has not made Armstead more efficient, though. He's shooting just 35.6 percent heading into Saturday's action, a percentage that would make even Allen Iverson blush.
Even so, there are no hierarchy problems on this team—Armstead is the man. Carl Hall, the player who has taken the biggest offensive hit due to Armstead, made as much clear this week in an interview with ESPN's Myron Medcalf:
I told him before [Saturday's] game [that] he's our quarterback, and if he doesn't like things we're doing on the court, then just tell me and [Cleanthony Early] what we need to do and how he wants us to set ball screens and do certain things. He's very important to our team, and I don't know what we'd be if we didn't have him. So we're just glad to have Malcolm.
The Shockers will need their "quarterback" to have a Tom Brady-like ascent if they have any hope of winning. Louisville's on-ball pressure makes guard play carry astronomical significance—especially point guards.
Armstead will be the man most responsible for getting the ball past half court, whether by breaking the press himself or creating the initial pass that surges his side into a standard set.
Louisville is a far different defensive team in the half court. It's still a great bunch, mind you, but not as otherworldly as when Rick Pitino's squad has his team flying on all cylinders.
If Armstead's evening even remotely resembles his 6-of-21 night against Ohio State in the Elite Eight, Wichita State has no chance. An ascendant performance, though, and the Shockers might just pull off the unthinkable.
The word "unthinkable" comes to mind any time someone mentions Wichita State defeating Louisville for a reason. There is a distinct talent advantage here for the Cardinals, one that far outweighs anything Gregg Marshall's team has seen previously this March.
Louisville is a juggernaut and has been for over two months now. This is arguably Pitino's most fear-evoking defensive squad since his heyday at Kentucky, and Russ Smith's unbelievable tournament run has turned the Cardinals into an almost equally potent offensive team.
Other than the Cinderella pixie dust, there is no individual matchup here that points toward the Shockers winning.
One of their biggest weaknesses is turning the ball over; forcing coughed-up balls is Louisville's biggest strength. Wichita State has no size; Gorgui Dieng is fresh off eviscerating Duke inside.
And even the inane storyline plot working in Wichita State's "favor" is nonexistent.
It's cliche, overwrought and frankly stupid to say Kevin Ware's injury will help Louisville.
The Cardinals will win on their merits of as a team. But it's certainly true that every single person even remotely involved with Louisville's basketball program wants this for Ware; they want it with every fiber of their being, and understandably so.
With that, poof goes the pixie dust and any chance the Shockers win. Louisville head to the national title game—and this isn't even gonna be close, folks.
Score Prediction: Louisville 72, Wichita State 57
All advanced stats are via KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
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