The road to the Final Four is never an easy one.
To make it to the NCAA tournament promised land requires four, sometimes five, wins over a three-week stretch—a true test of all of the components that make for a good basketball team.
The 2013 NCAA tournament has not disappointed in that category. The road for Syracuse, Michigan, Wichita State and Louisville is made up of four different paths that proves each team belongs in Atlanta for Saturday's Final Four matchups.
As Syracuse prepares to battle Michigan and Louisville gears up to avoid a letdown against Wichita State, it's a good time to look back at how all four of these teams made it to Atlanta and the 2013 Final Four.
In doing so, it's clear that all of these four teams have had impressive performances that prepared them for what's to come in Atlanta. Here, we'll look at how each team's biggest win showed us what to expect when things kick off on Saturday night.
No. 4 Syracuse (East Region)
Syracuse 61, No. 1 Indiana 50
Syracuse's defensive dominance culminated in an impressive 39-point allowance to Marquette in the Elite Eight, but we all started noticing two things in its win over No. 1 Indiana in the Sweet 16.
Those to things are simple: Michael Carter-Williams is the key to this team's success, and the 2-3 zone is in full swing.
Despite the 11-point spread in the final margin, Syracuse largely dominated every aspect of this game. The Orange's guards were more impressive than Kevin Ferrell and Jordan Hulls, and they completely dominated Cody Zeller in the post as well, possibly making the decision to return to school quite easy for both Zeller and Victor Oladipo.
Carter-Williams had 24 points in the contest, and he sparked the Orange's defense with four steals.
Syracuse showed us that its defense was for real, backed it up with another performance against Marquette and proved that the length and extension of the defense will make it hard on three-point shooters.
All of that will be tested again against Michigan, which has better shooters, another inside threat (Mitch McGary) and more athleticism than Indiana ever did.
No. 4 Michigan (South Region)
Michigan 87, No. 1 Kansas 85 (OT)
From heroics to freshman stepping up big, Michigan proved it could win a big game against Kansas in the Sweet 16.
Although it took a late three-pointer by Trey Burke to send this game into an extra period, the amount of fortitude and cohesiveness it took survive one of the most well-coached teams in the Big 12—on a night when its offense was actually working and a game completely regionally challenged (Dallas) to where Michigan is located—was immense.
All up, all in, Michigan gained respect both from outside patrons and within its locker room after this win over a No. 1 seed.
Burke was clearly the star with his deep three-pointer, but the talent from Michigan is seeping out from the seams these days. McGary finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds and largely outplayed Kansas star Jeff Withey—likely a first-round pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
It was a paltry shooting night from the outside by Michigan's current standards, but the Wolverines proved they could win a gritty game in a way they didn't prove capable of in the regular season. It was a huge stepping stone for coach John Beilein both against Florida in the Elite Eight and heading into Atlanta.
No. 9 Wichita State (West Region)
Wichita State 70, No. 2 Ohio State 66
Wichita State has played lead dog for most of the tournament.
While the Shockers should be applauded for their wide point margins in their first three games, that kind of outcome can't be expected when you get into situations in the Final Four against high-caliber teams.
Against Ohio State, Wichita State jumped out to the early advantage and really had control of this game throughout. However, like good teams do, Ohio State made a late push in the second half and crawled back to within three with under five minutes to play. Those are the kinds of situations you find yourself in while part of the Final Four, and Wichita State responded to the challenge.
The Shockers got a huge running shot from freshman guard Fred Van Vleet to extend the lead to six with a minute to play, and fellow freshman Ron Baker then helped the Shockers close the game out at the free-throw line.
We already knew that Wichita State had a balanced scoring attack, could attack the paint inside with Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall and had a true playmaker up top in Malcolm Armstead. We had not seen the Shockers in crunch time, but now, they have all the tournament resume moments to second-glance their 10-point underdog status against No. 1 Louisville on Saturday night.
No. 1 Louisville (Midwest Region)
Louisville 85, No. 2 Duke 63
If there's a team that doesn't need any added emotion to its already motivated quest towards an NCAA title, it's the Louisville Cardinals.
After watching teammate Kevin Ware writhe in pain on the ground following one of the most gruesome injuries you will ever see in sports, the Cardinals went into the locker room, said a prayer for their fallen teammate and responded with a 50-point quarter against the Duke Blue Devils in the Elite Eight.
It was a true domination in all facets of the word.
Louisville felt no pressure from Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee or any of Duke's biggest offensive threats in the second half, and it got another marquee scoring performance from Russ Smith in what turned out to be a blowout in Indianapolis.
Like Wichita State, the Cardinals have been front-runners so far in the tournament. While the lack of a close game scares you some, the response from this team in the face of adversity via Ware's injury is enough to show that the camaraderie, experience and talent of Louisville is going to be tough to beat.
It might be a bit cliche, but all of these teams are going to be tough to send home.
It's the Final Four, for crying out loud. Expect two thrillers in Atlanta on Saturday night.
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