The word of the season: Parity.
The team of the moment: Louisville.
For a college basketball season in which it seemed anybody could beat anybody, and the No. 1 ranking was never secure, Rick Pitino’s Cardinals have certainly cemented themselves as a prohibitive front-runner now that there are only four teams left. They head to Atlanta listed as 3-5 favorites in Las Vegas, after dispatching everyone from Duke to North Carolina A&T with equal ease on their way to the Final Four.
Trying to stop them will be Michigan, Syracuse and Wichita State – a pair of No. 4 seeds and a No. 9, all serving as great examples of how difficult it was to sort out the contenders from the pretenders heading into the 2013 version of March Madness.
“Cinderella found one glass skipper,” said Gregg Marshall, coach of Wichita State, which beat No. 1-seeded Gonzaga and No. 2 Ohio State on its way to adding some mid-major mojo to the Final Four. “We won four games. I don’t think she found four glass slippers. When you get to this point, you’re good enough to win it all.”
Pitino said he does, in fact, believe in parity during this, a season in which the team at the top of The Associated Press poll changed five times in five straight weeks at one point.
He called the Midwest Region, where the Cardinals were seeded first and won their games by an average of nearly 22 points, “the death bracket.”
“I’ve experienced quite a few NCAAs,” said Pitino, who is coaching his seventh Final Four team. “I’ve never played the likes of a Colorado State in the second round. They’re a team that was very much capable of getting to a Final Four. Then Oregon was just absolutely terrific. Then certainly Coach K and Duke ... To play Duke in an Elite Eight, never mind a Final Four, it was a death bracket.”
But fueled by emotion after teammate Kevin Ware gruesomely broke his leg, the Cardinals (33-5) beat Duke by 22 points, the second-most lopsided loss of the season for coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team.
The Michigan-Syracuse semifinal features two power-conference teams that finished in the upper half of their leagues, but stayed under the radar through conference tournament time.
The Orangemen (30-9) headed into the season having lost four players from a team that was seeded first last year but came up a win short of the Final Four.
They headed into the postseason losing four of five and coach Jim Boeheim was talking more about playing golf than coaching in April.
Sparked by Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense, they started playing better when they headed to New York for the Big East tournament. Led by Michael Carter-Williams, they’ve won seven of eight (their only loss was to Louisville in the Big East final) and are back in the Final Four for the first time since Carmelo Anthony brought the championship home in 2003.
“It’s difficult when you lose four out of five games,” Boeheim said of a streak that knocked Syracuse to the middle of the pack in the Big East and affected their NCAA seeding, as well. “But people go through that. Duke lost three games in a row this year. Kansas did. Michigan had a bad stretch. I think most teams have a bad stretch sometime during the course of the year, particularly if you play four games against three teams in the top 15 in the country.”
Michigan’s lull came in early February, when it lost three of four shortly after reaching No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time since 1992 — the days of the Fab Five.
Its current four-game winning streak is the first of more than two games since early in the Big Ten season. So, while the No. 4 seed may make sense for the Wolverines (30-7), it may not account for the difference maker they have in All-American Trey Burke. Burke has averaged 18.6 points in the last three games of the tournament, and made a critical long 3-pointer in an unlikely comeback victory over Kansas in the regional semifinals.
Coach John Beilein’s job will be to find ways to get shots for Burke against Boeheim’s zone.
“He’s had an ability, particularly with our teams, to really make sure some of our best shooters don’t get open shots, don’t get their traditional shots,” Beilein said. “So that’s our job, to try to figure that out, to make sure we can get clean looks, we call them.”
While the Michigan-Syracuse game is considered a near toss-up — Michigan’s a 2-point favorite — Louisville is favored by 10½ over Wichita State in the first semifinal. It’s the second-largest spread for a Final Four since 1985, the year the field expanded to 64 teams.
But Wichita State (30-8) doesn’t look at itself as an underdog anymore. Just another in a steadily growing line of George Masons, Butlers and VCUs — teams from mid-major conferences that have had the gall to crash the party.
“When you look at the run that we’ve had now, every game all season long was winnable,” Marshall said. “But when we didn’t win them, it’s interesting now that we’re facing Louisville, because I pointed to Louisville. I pointed to Kansas. These are great teams with great coaches that also suffered that type of blip, if you will, in their run to a marvelous season.”