It wasn't the prettiest 80 minutes of basketball, but the Final Four national semifinal round was still pretty damn spectacular.
Louisville, the top overall seed, beat upset-minded Wichita State 72-68 on the strength of a furious second-half rally. Syracuse nearly staged a similar comeback against Michigan before falling to the Wolverines 61-56.
Both games ended in a frenzy of fouls, missed free throws and adolescent flop sweat, leaving us with plenty to discuss in our latest batch of Winners, Losers, Heroes and Goats.
Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of KenPom.com.
"Please welcome Grammy-winning recording artist..."
How many nationally televised sporting events have started with some variation of that infernal phrase?
And how many baroque riffs on the national anthem has it preceded?
Imagine all the idle time you've wasted listening to Kelly Rowland hold the high note on "land of the freeeeeeeeeeee..." Imagine all the things you might have otherwise accomplished.
I bet you could have made two well-crafted sandwiches—at minimum. Maybe even a full-fledged hoagie.
Ah, but not today.
Rather than trot out some B-list pop singer with a new single to push, Final Four organizers tabbed the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir to sing Saturday night's national anthem.
Ebenezer Baptist—the one-time ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—is an Atlanta institution, and its inclusion in the festivities was a welcome nod to the city's history.
And guess what?
The song sounded just as good and lasted half as long. Amen to that.
Kevin Ware's gruesome leg injury has largely been treated as a human interest story—and with good reason. But there were strategic implications as well, and Ware's absence meant backup guards Luke Hancock and Tim Henderson would have to play bigger-than-expected roles for Louisville in the season's most meaningful game.
Make that "games."
Hancock, a junior, scored 20 points for just the second time in his collegiate career, and the first time in a non-overtime game. The George Mason transfer also made a crucial three-pointer—one of three on the night—to give Louisville a five-point lead with 2:09 remaining.
When Wichita State's Cleanthony Early answered with a tip-in, Hancock converted his third driving layup of the second half, reclaiming the five-point advantage and ultimately spurring Louisville to victory.
And how about young Tim Henderson?
The little-used junior reserve, a walk-on from good ol' Louisville, Kentucky, hit a pair of monster three-pointers in the second half to help halve a 12-point Wichita State lead and bring his team back from the brink.
Respectively, they were the 10th and 11th made three-pointers of his college career.
I won't say that the moment was too big for Wichita State freshman Fred VanVleet. The reserve guard has been too good for Gregg Marshall's team during this tournament—particularly in late-game situations—to get slapped with that kind of lazy, stock descriptor.
Instead I'll say that Saturday wasn't his night and leave it there.
VanVleet played 23 minutes for the Shockers, scored just three points, missed all four of his field-goal attempts and committed three turnovers. Two of those turnovers and two of those missed shots came in the game's final seven minutes.
For much of the night, Louisville's defense was unable to disrupt Wichita State's ball-handlers. But the tide turned during the latter stages of the second half, and VanVleet's play was a conspicuous part of the Shockers' game.
In a game that wasn't lacking in talent, Wichita State's Cleanthony Early was easily the best athlete on the floor.
Two plays stood out: a first-half transition dunk and a second-half transition block, both of which illustrated Early's exceptional combination of length, quickness and bounce.
And it wasn't just aesthetics. Early also played a heck of a basketball game.
He gave Wichita State its final lead of the night after completing an unlikely three-point play with 6:06 remaining, and his activity on the offensive glass kept Gregg Marshall's Shockers alive during the game's waning seconds.
Early finished with game highs in points (24) and rebounds (10) and has blossomed into an early-entry NBA draft candidate on the strength of his March play.
If you'd only watched Louisville in the 2013 NCAA tournament, you wouldn't have known this version of Russ Smith exists.
But there are drawbacks to Russdiculousness, and they were on full display Saturday.
Smith's shot selection, for example, was atrocious. He took a handful of quick, contest three-point shots that were utterly indefensible, part of a 4-for-11 performance from beyond that threatened to sink his team at critical points during the second half. Some of his full-throttle drives to the hoop were equally reckless, a couple of which added to his five-turnover total.
All in all, it was about the least helpful 21 points you'll ever see.
Louisville point guard Peyton Siva wasn't much better. His 1-of-9 shooting performance included a brutal missed layup during the game's frantic final minutes.
But at the very least, Siva made solid decisions with the basketball and took the shots available to him. Those shots didn't fall, but at least he didn't panic.
Smith, by contrast, tried to take over a game that didn't need taking over. It nearly cost his Cardinals a chance to play for the national championship.
Count me among those who didn't think Michigan freshman Mitch McGary was well-suited to play against Syracuse's zone. Count me among those who thought the athletic forward lacked the jump-shooting touch and passing savvy to man the high post and break down Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone.
Count me among those who were wrong.
McGary was brilliant on Saturday. In fact, I'd say his performance was about as good as I've seen this year from a true post player matched up against Syracuse's defense.
Like fellow Big Ten big man Cody Zeller, McGary is at his best in transition. Few opposing forwards can match the freshman's foot speed, and he has a good sense of where to be when trailing the ball.
But what surprised me on Saturday—more than the crowd-stoking dunks and flashy open-court dribbling sequences—was McGary's ability to distribute. He touched the ball in the half court as much as anyone on the Michigan team not named Trey Burke, and he regularly made crisp passes that resulted in easy hoops for his Wolverine teammates.
It was exactly the performance Michigan needed against Syracuse's zone, as McGary—who finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds and six assists—penned another chapter in his unlikely postseason saga.
Syracuse forward James Southerland hit an important three with 42 ticks left to break a game-long shooting drought, but even that wasn't enough to save his night, or Syracuse's season.
On a night when the offensively challenged Orangemen needed his outside shooting, the 6'8" senior hit just 2-of-9 from the field and 1-of-5 from deep.
And the looks were there against Michigan's smaller lineup. Southerland simply couldn't convert.
In the second half alone, he missed a potential game-trying three and another that could've halved a six-point advantage.
He also had a crucial fast-break turnover that led to a four-point swing in favor of Michigan.
Syracuse was able to bounce back and make the game interesting, but Jim Boeheim's team needed a bit more from its offense. On this night, Southerland, who has been one of 'Cuse's best scorers all season long, wasn't able to provide.
Michigan's rarely used—and rarely effective—bench played a major hand in the Wolverines' win, combining to score 21 points on just nine total shots.
It was the first time this tournament John Beilein's second unit has cracked the 20-point barrier, and just the second time since the beginning of March.
Wolverines fans won't count on a repeat performance against Louisville, but they sure as heck will take it tonight.
Michigan's Trey Burke and Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams were supposed to be the best players left in the tournament. And perhaps future outcomes will corroborate that assumption.
But it certainly didn't seem to be the case on Saturday.
Both point guards were conspicuously ineffective, combining to shoot 2-of-14 from the field. Together, the duo scored just nine total points, less than half of what Burke averaged by his lonesome this season.
Carter-Williams' night ended when he fouled out with 1:14 remaining and two points to his name. Burke survived to the finish, but that was about the only positive.
The Ohio native bricked a key free throw on Michigan's second-to-last possession, giving Syracuse a late chance to tie or go ahead.
Better luck in the Association, boys.
Wichita State was a cute story. Syracuse played some mean D.
But as soon as the Final Four draw materialized, I knew exactly who I wanted to see in the national championship game: Louisville and Michigan.
No game offered more potential scoring excitement or featured better next-level talent. And although a Syracuse-Louisville matchup would have had some nice storylines, we've already seen those two square off thrice this season.
Did we really need a fourth showdown?
Instead of re-hashing a re-hashed BIg East blood feud, we get a final with:
1. The best player in the country.
2. The best team in the country.
3. The best offense in the country.
4. The best defense in the country.
5. The highest stakes of the season.
I can't wait.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State: The Shockers head coach pieced together a nice game plan, daring Louisville point guard Peyton Siva to beat Wichita State with his jumper and sealing off the Cardinals' driving lanes. It damn near worked.
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: Harrell's high-energy athleticism was a major asset for Rick Pitino's Cardinals, particularly in the first half. He wound up with eight points on a perfect 4-for-4 from the field.
C.J. Fair, Syracuse: Fair was Syracuse's go-to offensive option from the tip, tallying 22 points on an equally prolific 20 shots. Perhaps it wasn't the best shot-to-point ratio, but it was still an admirable effort on a night where the 6'8" junior didn't get much help.
The University of Michigan: The ascent is complete. For the first time since ye olde days of Fab Fivedom, the Wolverines will play for a national championship.
Gorgui Dieng, Louisville: Dieng didn't have any points, but his second-half foul trouble really hurt Louisville. Without their best half-court defender, the Cardinals struggled to keep Wichita State off the glass.
Malcolm Armstead, Wichita State: Gregg Marshall's point guard did a nice job handling Louisville's pressure, but his late-game foul trouble hamstrung the Shockers. So did his 1-for-10 shooting performance.
Steve Fisher: The good news is that the former Michigan coach (and current San Diego State coach) snagged some precious air time. The bad news is that he had mustard on his face.
Ehimen Orukpe, Wichita State: The reserve center didn't take a single shot in seven minutes. He did, however, take two free throws, both of which he missed and one that fell well short of the front rim.
Nik Stauskas, Michigan: Ah, the life of a shooter. One game after he went 6-for-6 from three and scored 22 against Florida, Stauskas missed all five of his attempts from beyond and failed to register a single point. Somewhere in Gainesville, a solitary tear just rolled down Billy Donovan's cheek.