The Final Four play tonight, with Wichita State-Louisville at 6:09 p.m. ET and Syracuse-Michigan following it up at 8:49 p.m. Here, we're breaking down the four teams' special qualities: What should you know about Syracuse's zone? Who's that white guy who hits all the threes for Wichita, and how the hell does he get so open? Enjoy the games.
Louisville’s nonstop defensive pressure, which generates countless turnovers for Rick Pitino’s squad, should be its defining factor. But Russ Smith, a 6-foot guard who appears so slight that a breeze (not to mention the trees that clog up Big East interiors) might knock him out, is what really runs the Cardinals. There is no other player as crucial to a team's offensive success as Smith is to Louisville’s. The junior has attempted more than 500 field goals (the next closest Cardinal, Peyton Siva, has only taken 319 shots).
Smith embodies Pitino's offensive strategy: he’s constantly attacking opponents off the dribble and taking high-percentage shots at the rim. No other Final Four team gets to the goal as frequently as L'Ville–38 percent of their offense comes from shots within a few feet of the bucket. Many of these attempts are the result of fast-breaks from either defensive rebounds or turnovers. The Cardinals aren't a great defensive rebounding team, but they’re still forcing the most giveaways of any team in the Final Four (25.4 turnover rate). Even when Louisville sets up their halfcourt offense, however, Pitino often relies on continuous perimeter screens to free his guards, who then have the ability to break down the defender, get into the lane, and then either finish with a lay-up or a dump-down to Louisville's bigs.
Smith often has the ball in his hands–his usage rate during tournament play is 32.7 percent, tops on the squad and consistent with his rate during the regular season–and to give his guard an additional boost, Pitino will call for a forward to set a pick for Smith on the perimeter. Smith can easily shake a defender with his naturally quick first step off the screen. He then has two passing options: he can dish to the rolling big or to the other forward trolling along the baseline. Against Duke in the Elite Eight, though, Smith chose to finish himself; after a Stephen Van Treese pick, Smith uses an inside-out dribble to freeze Van Treese's man (Ryan Kelly) and then a burst of speed to get his scoop shot past Kelly's arms.
Thanks to the match-up difficulties that both Smith and Siva bring on offense, 50 percent of the squad's points during tournament play have been lay-ups, tip-ins, or dunks, and Smith, who has played like the tourney's MOP, is converting a ridiculous 64.3 percent of his twos.
Through the first 19 games, Mitch McGary was the first forward coach John Beilein summoned off the bench. After Jordan Morgan tweaked his ankle against Illinois, an injury that has essentially removed Morgan from the lineup, McGary's minutes rose dramatically: 16.3 minutes per game to 22.4 through the win over Florida. Before this change, Michigan relied on dribble penetration and perimeter shooting, but McGary's enlarged presence has added another dimension to the Wolverines' offense.
McGary is an old freshman–he reclassified during his high school career, and will be 21 years old this June–and defenders have come to dread his hard screens. Beilein, clearly taking advantage of McGary's strength and soft hands, has called for more Wolverine pick and rolls, which often end with McGary rolling to the bucket and receiving a pass. During the NCAA tournament, the squad has executed 19 pick and rolls, and 15 of those possessions have ended with McGary either converting the bucket or drawing a foul.
In the Kansas win, Michigan tried to draw Jayhawk big Jeff Withey away from the basket and make him stop Burke's penetration, and McGary's ability to catch the ball in traffic and then finish was essential to his squad’s win. During one possession, McGary set a pick for Burke on the left side of the court and then rolled quickly to the baseline. Burke, not wanting to dump the ball to McGary in a position where Withey might block the shot, slowed his dribble after cutting past McGary's side and, effectively, put KU on their heels. Burke's defender was now on his hip, and since Burke could attempt a floater, Withey had to leave McGary, which gave Burke a slight opening for his assist and McGary a two-handed slam.
Wichita State's game depends on paint touches to create ball movement and offensive openings. The Shockers are not strong on the perimeter: before Ron Baker rejoined the lineup (he was rehabbing a foot injury that sidelined him until early March), the squad's sole three-point threat was Malcolm Armstead, so to avoid teams clogging the paint and effectively daring the Shockers to convert from deep, Gregg Marshall's team often relies on quick ball movement after a post entry to keep defenses off-balance.
Against Gonzaga in their third-round game, WSU had both Carl Hall and Ehimen Orukpe flash to the free throw line. Armstead passes the ball to Hall on the left elbow, then runs off a screen set by Orukpe. Since Armstead isn't open after the initial screen, Hall passes the ball to Orukpe on the right elbow, who then enters to Fred Van Vleet, WSU's freshman guard who has posted up on the right block after being freed of his defender by a back-screen set by Armstead. Baker, who had been on the right wing and is converting 39 percent of his threes since returning to action, drifted to the top of the key and was wide-open from beyond the arc. Even though Baker ultimately turned the ball over trying to force a pass to the paint, the constant ball movement and post entries managed to stymie a defensively-minded Gonzaga (.89 OPPP overall).
Syracuse has been downright stingy throughout the tournament. The Orange are holding opponents to just .69 points per possession, a rate that defies conventional basketball belief. Jim Boeheim's squad is in the midst of the greatest defensive performance in the tournament's modern era, having handcuffed two teams to under 40 points. Against Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen, they exposed how poorly the Hoosiers had prepared for Syracuse's 2-3 zone. While Syracuse hasn't forced as high a percentage of turnovers as Louisville (24.9 percent, compared to L'Ville's 25.4 percent), ‘Cuse still makes it very difficult for teams to even initiate their offense, particularly due to the presence of Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche.
During tourney play, Syracuse's four opponents have given the ball away 54 times; the combination of Triche and Carter-Williams (or just one of them atop the zone) has generated 16 of those turnovers. The soft spot of any 2-3 zone is the free throw line. If a team has a big capable of flashing to the stripe, and then either reversing the ball, attempting a ten-footer, or driving to the rim, the zone breaks down. Because Triche and Carter-Williams stand 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6, respectively, opposing teams have an extremely tough time getting the ball to the middle of the interior without losing a possession, and if a guard tries to split the 'Cuse duo, those long arms do well to blur an opponent's vision. The two often succeed in tipping the ball to a teammate or forcing a rushed pass.
Midway through the second half, for example, Indiana was only down eight when Christian Watford, the Hoosiers' stretch-4, overdribbled and somehow penetrated the lane. When Watford tried to find an open teammate, Carter-Williams slapped down at the exposed ball, which hit Watford's leg before quickly spinning out of bounds and ending any chance Indiana had at staging a comeback.
Matt Giles is a reporter for New York Magazine and has contributed to College Baskeball Prospectus 2012-13, as well as ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, BuzzFeed, and Salon. He wrote college basketball's Watchable 15 (Or So) this season.