WICHITA STATE VS. LOUISVILLE
Matchup: Louisville entered the Tournament as the overall top seed and has held serve thus far. Wichita State got into the Tournament as an at-large team from the Missouri Valley. In other words, these teams have arrived at the Final Four on different paths (though they have followed the same path in terms of their respective brackets). This game is not quite the David vs. Goliath of the 1983 Finals, but the Shockers will have to live up to their name to a greater degree to knock off their second one-seed of the Tournament. By the way, Wichita State is the first nine-seed in the Final Four since 1979 when the Penn Quakers represented the Ivy in the undercard to the Magic-Bird finals. There have been five eight seeds, three 11 seeds and no 10 seeds.
Louisville Cardinals, Midwest Region No. 1 seed
Backcourt: With all due respect to Michigan guard Trey Burke, the Cardinals' Russ Smith is the best scorer in the Final Four. The 6-foot-1 junior has scored at least 23 points in all four Tournament games, averaging 26.0 points. He aggressively attacks the basket, evidenced by his 36 free-throw attempts in the last three games. Unlike in midseason, Smith seems to be playing just under control, which causes chaos to opponents. Point guard Peyton Siva does not get as much attention as Smith because he is not a great scorer. In his four-year Cardinals career, he has not averaged double digits in points, but he provided 5.8 assists and 2.2 steals this season. The senior will not be out-quicked by Shockers guards. With Kevin Ware out, Luke Hancock may have to do a bit more ball-handling. The 6-6 George Mason transfer is mainly a 3-point shooter, but can facilitate the offense in a pinch. Wayne Blackshear could also get more burn in Ware's place.
Frontcourt: Other than his 2-of-8 performance from the free-throw line, center Gorgui Dieng has impressed in the Tournament. The 6-11 junior from Senegal has only missed four shots in 24 attempts. He provided four blocked shots against both Duke and Oregon as he swallowed up 20 boards. Dieng could well be the difference between the two teams, but the Cardinals have plenty of frontcourt depth. Forwards Chane Behanan and freshman Motrezl Harrell don't seem to be productive in the same game often, but both have a nice range of skills. Before providing eight points and eight boards against Duke, Behanan had been quiet in the Tournament. Harrell is a bouncy freshman who had seven boards in the win over the Ducks. He is a little taller, but not quite as wide as Behanan.
X-Factor: Gorgui Dieng. The Shockers have faced tall players in Pitt's Steven Adams (who is going pro after just one season) and Kelly Olynyk from Gonzaga. While Dieng may not have the low-post scoring skills of the Zags big, he has a nice array of skills. Some might think of him as a raw offensive player with good defensive skills, but he is the only player recently to solve the Syracuse 2-3 zone by passing out of the high post. He can also hit a mid-range jumper if left alone. While the Shockers will have to be aware of Smith's driving ability and the perimeter shooters, they had better not forget Dieng or he will make them pay.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
North Carolina A&T, 79-48
Colorado State, 82-56
They'll Win If: they stick with the plan. Louisville, who beat a super athletic Oregon team, should not underestimate the athletes on Wichita State. The Shocker guards are quick, and the combination of Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall has Tier 1 skills. The Cardinals will press all over the court and should stick with the plan that has earned them three easy wins and a relatively comfortable win over the Ducks (though Oregon mounted a decent comeback). Coach Rick Pitino will be sure to keep the players' focus directed on the game in the team's second straight Final Four appearance.
Wichita State, West Region No. 9 seed
Backcourt: The Shockers do not have stars like their opponent, but they have waves of depth. The team boasts four guards averaging 23-28 minutes. The leader of the backcourt is Oregon transfer Malcolm Armstead. The 6-0 senior has averaged 18.0 points in his last five games, including 22 points in a Sweet 16 victory against La Salle. In the Tournament, he has only made 6-of-21 from 3-point land. Despite his size, Armstead is a good rebounder from the backcourt. Freshman Fred VanVleet is Armstead's primary backup and has played more minutes in the Tournament. He has scored 32 points in his last three games for his best stretch of the season. Ron Baker, Demetric Williams and Tekele Cotton provide perimeter defense and occasional shooting.
Frontcourt: In Hall and Anthony, Wichita State has one of the more intriguing frontcourt duos. Hall, a 6-8 senior, is the more traditional, low-post forward. He will need to stay out of foul trouble against the Cardinals, as he has been limited to no more than 29 minutes in the previous four Tournament games. Hall had six rejections against Ohio State to help protect the rim. Early is the Shockers' leading scorer at 13.7 points. The 6-8 small forward was the Division III junior college player of the year in both 2011 and 2012. He has averaged 14.3 points in the Tournament but can run hot and cold from the perimeter.
X-Factor: Ron Baker. The redshirt freshman from Scott City, Kan., walked on to the Shocker team in 2011-12 before earning a scholarship. He had an appendectomy last summer and missed nearly two months of the season with a stress fracture in his left foot. The 6-3 guard led the upset of Gonzaga with four 3-pointers on his way to 16 points (two short of his season high set in the opener against North Carolina Central). If he can duplicate his marksmanship from the perimeter, he could help loosen the Cardinals defense.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
La Salle, 72-58
Ohio State, 70-66
They'll Win If: Hall stays out of foul trouble, and they hit an unreasonable percentage of 3-pointers. Against Gonzaga, the Shockers pulled the upset by going 14-of-28 from long range. Gonzaga's defense is much more permissive than the Louisville press. Another key will be Armstead and VanVleet handling the press. Both guards are excellent ball-handlers, but they have not seen the length and athleticism that stretches throughout the Cardinals roster.
In the Elite Eight, the Shockers were not lucky to beat Ohio State: they were the better team. Wichita State will need some lucky breaks to beat Louisville, which has marched like Sherman to Atlanta. The 3-pointer is the great equalizer in college basketball, but the Shockers are not generally a great perimeter team (they converted just 34 percent of their 3-pointers). Wichita State can use its depth to fend off being worn down by the Pitino press, but it will also have to stay away from Cardinals runs, which doomed teams like Duke. The Shockers may have had their perfect game in the win against Gonzaga; expect Louisville to win comfortably. (I shall root against reason and hope for some great Shocker puns Saturday).