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COLUMN

Final Four has everything except Cinderella

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For more on college athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

Top-seed Louisville looms as favorite

Saturday, April 6, 2013 - 9:39 am

Forget, for a second, that Louisville is a big favorite to make Monday's college basketball national championship game, or that Michigan has the nation's best player, or that Wichita State is NOT a Cinderella story, or that Syracuse has a zone defense for the ages.

Louisville (33-5) faces Wichita State (30-8) and Syracuse (30-9) takes on Michigan (30-7) tonight in Atlanta's Georgia Dome and all things are possible.

“These four teams are all capable of winning a national championship,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino says.

Is that coaching hype or truth? If you've seen this season's parity, you understand that the lack of a dominant team has made a compelling season produce an even more compelling postseason.

So what does this mean for the Final Four?

Let's take a look.

Pitino is in his seventh Final Four and is set to be a new member of the basketball Hall of Fame. He coaches a team that has won 14 straight since an epic five overtime 104-101 loss at Notre Dame on Feb. 2.

Pitino raves about Wichita State's defense, which he calls “Marquette on steroids.” He says the key to winning a national championship isn't motivation or zones or stud players, as much as “offensive and defensive execution.”

Of course, if stud players execute that offense and defense, all the better.

Louisville is a 10.5-point favorite over Wichita State, which makes the Cardinals the biggest Final Four favorite since Duke had an 11-point edge over Michigan State in 1999.

The Blue Devils won 68-62, but that's so end of 20th Century irrelevant. Wichita State coach Greg Marshall wants everybody, especially the Cardinals, to overlook his Shockers.

“We're better when we are the underdog,” he says. “We've done better when nothing is expected of us, when we are the underdog, which we will clearly be (tonight).”

Wichita State is the ninth seed that upset top-seed Gonzaga and second-seed Ohio State to win the West Region. That makes the Shockers a good team, Marshall says. It does not make them Cinderella.

“Cinderella found one glass slipper,” he says. “We won four (NCAA tourney) games. Cinderella usually win a game or two. When you get to this point, you're good enough to win it all. After winning four games, there's no longer a Cinderella factor.”

Marshall was bombarded with texts and calls from his mid-major coaching comrades. He had the chance most never would.

“They said, we will never get to this position, do it for us. Do it for the little guys. Those people should feel part of this run to the Final Four. It's a chance to validate all the great coaches who will never get the chance.”

For Louisville, guard Kevin Ware's broken leg provides motivation and takes away backcourt depth. Walk-on guard Tim Henderson must come through on college basketball's biggest stage because, as Pitino says, it's too late to change now. The Cardinals must “steal minutes” to ensure starters Peyton Siva and Russ Smith get enough rest.

In other words, the Cardinals will still attack with defense, pressure from every conceivable angle. To win, Marshall says, the Shockers must punish that pressure.

“You have to take care of the ball. If you do that, it keeps them out of the transition game that fuels their fire. Dealing with that pressure will be a big focal point for us. They do a lot of trapping. It will be a big challenge for us.”

Michigan faces a big challenge in a Syracuse zone that has turned postseason offenses into mush. Three of its four opponents have scored 50 or fewer points, including Indiana, which arrived in the Sweet 16 with one of the nation's top offenses and never found its rhythm.

Wolverines coach John Beilein, by the way, is 0-for-9 against Syracuse and its coach, Jim Boeheim.

“We have to as ready as we can be,” Beilein says. “(Boeheim) has an ability to make sure some of our best shooters don't get open or traditional shots. Our job is to get clean looks.

“Their length is never a good matchup for any team. I do like the fact we have a week to simulate it.”

He also likes the fact he has guard Trey Burke, the Wooden Award winner and the AP national player of the year.

But beyond that, this is vindication for Beilein, who earned his way to this position perhaps more than any other coach. He coached at high school, junior college, Division III, Division II, low-major, and mid-major before making it big, first at West Virginia, then at Michigan.

He had losing records in two of his first three seasons at Michigan, and was a Big Ten non-factor in his first four seasons. For a while his job security was shaky. But last year the Wolverines shared the Big Ten title. This year they returned to the Final Four for the first time in a generation.

“It's about the complete Michigan tradition,” Beilein says. “It was survival mode for the first three to four years. Now it's about continuing to grow this program to be in this position to be in this position. We're all paid really well to do these things. There are a lot of expectations. We understand that.”

Boeheim understands Syracuse is perhaps playing the best defense of his 37-year career, and it will need all of that against Michigan. The Wolverines, with center Mitch McGary evolving into an imposing inside presence to offset Burke's perimeter excellence, are an offensive force.

“Michigan presents more problems than anybody we've faced,” Boeheim says. “They're the best offensive team in the tournament. McGary has really stepped up. They're a different team with his presence inside. Now, he's dominant. They still have the same guys on the perimeter. Each one can score 20 points in a night. Offensively they are, by far, the biggest challenge we've faced.”

Add it all up and here's what you get -- a Louisville-Michigan final, with the Cardinals giving Pitino his second national title.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.