College basketball’s last four standing each has a regular-season stretch to forget.
Louisville dropped three straight.
Michigan fell to a conference opponent that owned a 0-14 league record.
Wichita State had a three-game losing skid that included a pratfall at the last-place team.
Syracuse was leaking so much oil, losing four of five to end the regular season, Coach Jim Boeheim wonder if his team was through.
“I was concerned,” Boeheim said. “We were really in trouble.”
Now, he’s in the Final Four because, like the others, the Orange didn’t panic. They adjusted, regained confidence and played their best ball over the past two weeks to create a bracket-busting Final Four.
The Cardinals, who defeated Duke 85-63 on Sunday to capture the Midwest Regional, are the only top seeded team headed to Saturday’s national semifinals in Atlanta. Michigan and Syracuse are No. 4 seeds, and the Shockers are the first No. 9 seed in the Final Four since 1979, which was also the last time a Missouri Valley Conference team got this far.
But Louisville will arrive with a heavy heart after the gruesome injury to sophomore guard Kevin Ware. In the first half of Sunday’s game, Ware raced out to defend a three-point attempt by Duke’s Tyler Thornton in front of the Louisville bench. When Ware landed his right leg snapped below the knee. Louisville bench players immediate reacted with horror, and so did Thornton. Cardinals on the floor dropped to knees in tears.
As he was being attended to at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, “all he kept saying was ‘Win the game,’” said Cardinals Coach Rick Pitino.
Louisville responded with one of their most impressive victories of the season, running away from the Blue Devils in the second half behind lightening quick guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva.
Pitino and Boeheim are old hands at this, having each won national titles, Pitino with Kentucky in 1996, Boeheim in 2003. It’s the first Final Four for Michigan’s John Beilein and the Shockers’ Gregg Marshall.
The Cardinals will meet Wichita State on Saturday in a battle of old Missouri Valley rivals in a game that will tip at 5:09 p.m. The Shockers knocked out three teams with better seeds, including the nation’s top-ranked team, Gonzaga, in the third-round, and No. 2-seed Ohio State in Saturday’s West Regional final.
Wichita State is making its first Final Four appearance since 1965, but the Shockers, who fell to last-place Southern Illinois during their bad stretch, say they belong and won’t be intimidated by the surroundings of the sports’ grandest stage this weekend.
“We’ve got the same potential, regardless if they know who we are or not,” said junior forward Cleanthony Early.
The Michigan-Syracuse semifinal at 7:49 p.m., offers the most contrasting styles in the Final Four.
The Wolverines ability to light up two of the nation’s best defensive teams – Florida and Kansas _ pushed the program into its first Final Four since Chris Webber’s ill-fated timeout late against North Carolina cost the Michigan and the Fab Five a chance at the 1993 national title. That appearance was the program’s third Final Four in five years, winning the title in 1989.
But when the Wolverines lost at Penn State, which was 0-14 at the time, such a run didn’t seem possible.
At the regional in Arlington, Tex., the offense kicked into high gear. Against the nation’s leader in field-goal percentage defense, Michigan shot 54 percent after halftime and made up a 14-point defensive in the final six minutes of regulation to beat Kansas in overtime 87-85 on Friday. Trey Burke’s 28-footer that forced the extra time will long be remembered in Michigan basketball lore.
The Wolverines made it look easy against Florida, especially guard Nik Stauskas, who made all six of his three-point attempts in Michigan’s 79-59 victory. In the first half, as Michigan established command, seven of 11 three-pointers dropped.
Michigan’s winning margin was the greatest in a regional final since 1999, until the next game, when Louisville won by 22.
Syracuse has put choke holds on opponents throughout its Final Four run, none tighter in Saturday’s East final against fellow Big East member Marquette. The Orange won 55-39, as the Golden Eagles set an NCAA Tournament record for fewest points in a regional final since the shot clock was introduced in 1986. The team’s 2-3 zone has been suffocating during the tournament and have taken Boehiem back to his fourth Final Four.
“These guys have come a long ways in three weeks,” Boeheim said.
All final four have.