Final Four: High-octane O vs. shutdown D

Wolverines like to run, run, run, but Syracuse zone can be suffocating
2013-04-06T00:00:00Z Final Four: High-octane O vs. shutdown DThe Associated Press The Associated Press
April 06, 2013 12:00 am  • 

ATLANTA - Syracuse is brimming with confidence, largely because of its suffocating style when the other team has the ball.

Next up, a guy who knows a thing or two about breaking down opposing defenses.

Trey Burke, meet the Orange Crush.

The Final Four semifinal between Syracuse and Burke's Michigan team will present a clear contrast in styles tonight - the Orange, a veteran group that is perfectly content to settle into their octopus-like zone, vs. the brash young Wolverines, who love to run, run, run and have been compared to those Fab Five squads of the early 1990s.

Clearly taking to heart the adage that offense wins fans but defense wins championships, Syracuse sounded like a team that fully expects to be playing in the title game at the Georgia Dome.

"It's going to take them a while to adjust to the zone," junior guard Brandon Triche said Friday, a day when all four teams got a chance to practice in the cavernous, 70,000-seat stadium that is normally home of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.

The Michigan players quickly got wind of the comments coming from Syracuse's media session.

"It sounds like cockiness," said guard Tim Hardaway Jr., son of the former NBA star. "But it's not going to come down to just talent or who has the biggest players. It's going to come down to heart and passion."

Having a player such as Burke doesn't hurt, either.

The Associated Press Player of the Year already came up huge in the regionals, leading the Wolverines back from a 14-point deficit against Kansas with less than seven minutes remaining. He knocked down a long three-pointer at the end of regulation to tie the game, then finished off the upset of the top-seeded Jayhawks in overtime.

But Burke has never played against a defense quite like this.

"We've just got to try to find different ways to attack the zone," the sophomore guard said. "They play a really good 2-3. It's tough. We've got to make sure we knock down uncontested threes."

The zone is usually viewed as more of a passive defense.

Not the way Syracuse plays it.

Coach Jim Boeheim has assembled a bunch of guys with impressive size and surprising quickness. When they're all working together - waving those long arms and moving back and forth in unison - it can be tough to get an open jumper and nearly impossible to work the ball inside.

Syracuse has taken its trademark D to new levels of stinginess in the NCAA tournament.

The Orange has surrendered a paltry 45.75 points per game, holding Montana (34), top-seeded Indiana (50) and Marquette (39) to their lowest scoring totals of the season. Overall, Syracuse's four tournament opponents have combined to shoot just 28.9 percent from field and 15.4 percent from three-point range.

The Wolverines are averaging 75.5 points a game on the season, even more (78.8) in their four NCAA games. Last weekend, after stunning Kansas, they romped past one of the nation's best defensive teams, beating Florida 79-59 in the regional final.

They are certainly not intimidated by Syracuse.

"If their zone was unbeatable, then they would be 39-0," Hardaway scoffed. "We're just going to go out there, play our game, not worry about what they're going to do, and just play Michigan basketball."

Louisville-Wichita St.

ATLANTA - Louisville already had the bigger names, the better team and some unfinished business after coming up short in last year's Final Four.

All Wichita State had was the cute-and-cuddly underdog angle. Now the Shockers don't even have that.

Kevin Ware is everybody's favorite player since he broke his leg in gruesome fashion last weekend yet summoned the strength to encourage his teammates, and having him at the Final Four has given the top-seeded Cardinals (33-5) added motivation to claim the title that eluded them last year.

"We really want it, especially since we're back here for a second year," Louisville forward Wayne Blackshear said Friday. "With Kevin going down, especially the way he did, it's just making us play harder."

Louisville plays Wichita State in the first national semifinal today. The Cardinals are 10 1/2-point favorites.

Wichita State has one player (Carl Hall) who salvaged his career after working in a light bulb factory and two more (Ron Baker and Malcolm Armstead) who paid their way to come to school and started on the team as walk-ons. Its coach has invited fans into the locker room after big wins. Yes, this is a school with all the makings of a team the entire country could get behind.

Problem is, in this case, Louisville and Ware are already tugging on America's heart strings.

"I'm just glad to know Kevin Ware now even more because he's probably the most famous person I know," Peyton Siva cracked. "You know, when you have Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama call you, it's pretty good to say you know that person."

Louisville's trip to last year's Final Four was something of a surprise, coming after the Cardinals skidded into the Big East tournament just two games over .500. So when they got to the NCAA tourney and finally got bounced by archrival and top-ranked Kentucky in the national semifinals, it wasn't a shock. Or a huge disappointment.

This year, however, the Cardinals - and almost everyone else - expect Louisville to win it all.

"I think that's the one difference from last year to this year," Chane Behanan said. "Last year, I don't want to say it was a fluke because we were a great basketball team. This year is just totally different. We have the No. 1 seed. It's a lot of pressure with everyone expecting us to win."

Until Ware got hurt, the Cardinals seemed immune to the pressure and the expectations, to say nothing of letdowns.

They won their first four NCAA tournament games by an average of almost 22 points. They limited opponents to 59 points and 42 percent shooting while harrassing them into almost 18 turnovers. Oregon was the only team to get within single-digits of Louisville at the buzzer. The Cardinals blew out mighty Duke by 22 points.

Russ Smith was named Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional after averaging 26 points in the first four games and tying an NCAA record with eight steals against North Carolina A&T.

Losing Ware was big. He was the main substitute - the only substitute, really - for Smith and Peyton Siva, the high-octane guards who are the key not only to Louisville's suffocating press but its offense, too.

"Our players totally understand the challenge that lies ahead with this Wichita State team," coach Rick Pitino said. "We understand with Kevin out that we not only have to play very hard, we have to play very, very smart."

Final Four teams at a glance

Louisville (33-5)

• Star: Russ Smith was the Midwest's MOP after matching his career high of 31 points against Oregon and scoring 23 against Duke. The junior guard nicknamed "Russdiculous" is averaging 26.0 points and 3.3 steals in the four tournament games.

• Coach: Rick Pitino is the only coach to have taken three schools to the Final Four (Kentucky, Providence), and he has the Cardinals here for the second straight year.

• Key point: The Cardinals have made their mark with defense. Their 20 steals against North Carolina A&T is an NCAA tournament record.

Wichita State (33-5)

• Star: Senior guard Malcolm Armstead, the the West's MOP, is averaging 15.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.0 steals in the NCAA tournament.

• Coach: Gregg Marshall is in his sixth season with the Shockers and has them in the tournament for the second straight year although 2012 ended with a first-round loss to VCU. He led Winthrop to the NCAA tournament seven times from 1999 to 2007.

• Key point: The Shockers are playing solid defense in the tournament (62.2) while scoring between 70 and 76 points in the four games.

Michigan (30-7)

• Star: Trey Burke, a consensus first-team All-American, was the South's MOP. He scored 23 points in the second half and overtime against top-seeded Kansas as Michigan overcame a 10-point deficit with 2:20 left. His 30-footer tied the game with four seconds left in regulation.

• Coach: John Beilein has led four schools to the NCAA tournament (Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia) and this is his first Final Four.

• Key point: The big surprise of the tournament has been freshmen forward Mitch McGary, who is averaging 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds.

Syracuse (30-9)

• Star: Syracuse's star is the 2-3 zone. Opponents in the NCAA tournament are shooting 28.9 percent. The Orange has forced 67 turnovers and has 44 steals and 25 blocked shots.

• Coach: Jim Boeheim is second only to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski in wins in Division I (957-920), and this is the fourth team he has taken to the Final Four; his 2003 team won it all.

• Key point: The backcourt of Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams are the stars of the zone, playing up top and taking advantage of turnovers and missed shots.

Today

Final Four in Atlanta, games on Ch 13 and 1490-AM

• Wichita St. vs. Louisville: 3 p.m.

• Syracuse vs. Michigan: 5:30 p.m.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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