Congratulations to the 2013 National Champion Louisville Cardinals. The Cards took down Michigan in the title game on Monday night in one of the better games/matchups in recent memory. The title game featured two of the most complete teams in college basketball. And it wasn’t just the title game. The Final Four as a whole was must see TV for all basketball fans. There was no shortage of story lines from Kevin Ware‘s injury to the Cinderella Wichita State Shockers. One team had to come out victorious while the other three teams were left searching for what went wrong. Now that the dust has settled we take a look back at what we learned from this year’s Final Four.
1. The Committee got it right.
Every year on Selection Sunday, college basketball analysts and pundits always seem to have a gripe with the committee’s omissions from the field. This year there was plenty of discussion but not necessarily about what teams were left out. This time the discussion centered around the Louisville Cardinals and their #1 overall seed. Some thought Gonzaga deserved that seed, others felt that Indiana had the best resume. The committee thought otherwise and gave the Cardinals that honor. For once, everyone can agree that the committee got it right. The Cardinals showed the world that they were the best team in college basketball tearing through the tournament like a team on a mission. Not even a gruesome injury to Kevin Ware, a key reserve, could stop them. After virtually sleepwalking through the tournament’s first four rounds, the Cardinals finally got their first true test against Wichita State on Saturday. The Shockers were ahead for much of the game and were within minutes of denying Louisville their first shot at a Championship under Rick Pitino but Luke Hancock came up big down the stretch for the Cards and even came up with a key, albeit controversial, tie up to put the game out of reach. In the title game it was more of the same with Peyton Siva leading the way defensively and Hancock hitting big shots to bring the team back. It was almost as if this team was destined to win it all. With the injured Ware sitting court side for both games and the players wearing shirts that read "Ri5e to the Occasion" over their jerseys it was almost like something straight out of a movie.
2. Trey Burke is the real deal.
No single player increased his draft stock more from last season to this season more than Burke. He was widely considered a borderline first round pick at this time last year but decided to forgo the draft and return for his sophomore season. It was the best decision he could have made. He led the Wolverines in scoring (18.6) and assists (6.7) en route to an All-Big 10 selection to go along with the Naismith, AP and Wooden awards for Player of the Year in college basketball. Not to mention he led Michigan to their first Final Four since the Fab Five era. That’s not a bad list of accomplishments. He also all but assured himself a spot in the lottery in this June’s draft. He was the catalyst for this Michigan team all season long and that was even more evident over the Tournament’s final weekend. Burke struggled mightily against that 2-3 zone from Syracuse and only shot 1-8 from the field. Michigan never could seem to get into the flow of their offense mainly because Burke was/is their offense and when he struggles so does everyone else. Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway Jr, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III all play off of Burke’s ability to get into the lane, collapse the defense and find the open man. It was evident that when Burke wasn’t on the floor, this team was average at best. Burke rebounded in the title game by scoring 24 on 7-11 shooting but he was hampered by foul trouble for most of the first half that got him out of the flow of the game. His replacement Spike Albrecht has the game of his life but the offense sputtered heading into halftime and the Cardinals got back into the game after being down by as many as 12. Burke is the best point guard prospect in this year’s draft class and he’ll have another decision to make in the coming days about coming back for his junior season and trying to get back to the Final Four but his stock really can’t get any higher at this point so you probably won’t see him in the maize and blue next season.
3. Wichita State belonged.
At some point mid-major’s like Wichita State, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth are going to have to stop being called Cinderella teams. At least one of those three team’s has been in the Final Four in three of the last four years. This year it was the Shockers’ turn and they made sure not to disappoint during their time in Atlanta. The experts said that Louisville would easily handle Gregg Marshall’s team in the semi-finals after the way they handled Duke in the regional finals. The Cardinals were a 10.5 point favorite which was shocking (See what I did there?) considering that Wichita State had already taken down #1 seed Gonzaga and #2 seed Ohio State. No one gave them a chance. But that is why the games are played. It was clear from the opening tip that the Shockers weren’t to be taken lightly. They were patient with the ball, didn’t force the action and took care of the ball against the pressure that Peyton Siva and Russ Smith put on the ball handlers. Cleanthony Cleary and Carl Hall paced Wichita State and dominated the paint early on in the game. They gave Louisville all they had and had the lead for most of the game. They just didn’t have an answer for Luke Hancock or Tim Henderson who both saw extra action because of the Ware injury. The two combined for 26 points including 5-8 from long distance. Wichita State didn’t go away and thanks to some poor free throw shooting in the last minute for the Cardinals, they had a chance to tie the game with under five seconds but the aforementioned Hancock forced a tie up on a missed free throw that gave the ball back to Louisville. Was it a quick whistle? Maybe. Did the Shockers deserve a shot a tying the game? Probably. But that’s just the way things go sometimes but that didn’t and shouldn’t take anything away from what the team accomplished this season.
4. Syracuse needed more offense.
Jim Boeheim is the master of that 2-3 zone defense. Syracuse is one of the few teams that play a zone predominately in college basketball and it often gives opposing offenses fits as they try and break it down. That was their calling card again this year and it paid off in the Tournament. Syracuse held Montana and Marquette under 40 and clamped down on an otherwise potent Indiana offense. In the semi-final game against Michigan they held Player of the Year Trey Burke to single digits and frustrated the rest of the Wolverines for much of the night. But the problem for Syracuse was their inability to score the basketball. The Orange had relied on a very balanced scoring attack for much of the season but when it mattered most they just couldn’t score enough points. Michael Carter-Williams and James Southerland both had off nights and when a team struggles to score like ‘Cuse does at times, two of your starters can’t go cold at the same time. Carter-Williams is a talented player but he struggles with his jump shot and isn’t as effective when he is kept out of the lane. It is games like the one against Michigan that Syracuse could really use a post player that can score on the block. Southerland is a stretch four and takes most of his shots from the perimeter and Baye Keita is more of a defensive presence in the middle of that zone and isn’t known for his offensive prowess. The team only scored 70 points one time during their five tournament games and that was against Montana. It was their inability to get an easy bucket down the stretch that doomed Syracuse. Even so, their defense kept them in the game and they had a chance to tie the game late but another questionable call was the difference.
Follow me on Twitter @CroweClayton