Final Four is set after blowouts, surprises

  • Posted: Monday, April 1, 2013 12:02 a.m.

ATLANTA — An inspired Louisville squad vs. the surprising Shockers.

A new group of Fab Wolverines vs. the stingiest zone defense in college basketball.

After a weekend of blowouts and another upset, the Final Four is set.

Top overall seed Louisville will face Wichita State at the Georgia Dome next Saturday, while Michigan takes on Syracuse in the other national semifinal. The winners advance to the April 8 championship.

On Sunday, the Cardinals drew inspiration from a gruesome injury to guard Kevin Ware and cruised past Duke 85-63 in the Midwest Regional. Michigan led from the opening tip, routing Florida 79-59 in the South.

A day earlier, Syracuse shut down Marquette 55-39 to win the East. Wichita State punched its Final Four ticket with a 70-66 upset of Ohio State out West.

In the final year of the Big East before it splits into two new conferences, Louisville and Syracuse provided a fitting send-off to a league that quickly became a basketball powerhouse after it was founded in 1979.

Before it goes, this version of the Big East has a shot at one more national title.

The Cardinals – who, like Syracuse, are moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference – were the only No. 1 seed to make it to the Final Four. And, boy, it’s been an impressive run.

Louisville (33-5) has won its four NCAA games by an average margin of nearly 22 points.

Russ Smith scored 23 points. Gorgui Dieng had 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.

While the Cardinals are the clear favorite heading to their second straight Final Four, Wichita State was the most improbable team to advance.

The ninth-seeded Shockers lived up to their nickname in the West, knocking off top-seeded Gonzaga in the second round and No. 2 seed Ohio State in the regional final Saturday night.

Wichita State (30-8) built a 20-point lead on the Buckeyes, then managed to hang on through a nerve-racking final five minutes to pull off the latest upset in a tournament filled with them.

The Shockers will need an even bigger stunner to knock off Louisville, the one team in a wide-open tournament that has looked unbeatable.

Then again, that other team from Kansas has shown no fear so far.

“It feels very good,” said Cleanthony Early, a junior forward who, like most guys on this team, was passed over by higher-profile programs, “but we understand the fact that we’ve got to stay hungry and humble, because we’ve got two more games left to really be excited about.”

Michigan (30-7) is headed back to the Final Four for the first time since the Fab Five era of the early 1990s, when the Wolverines lost in back-to-back national title games.

This team has much the same feel, led by sophomore Trey Burke, the Big Ten player of the year, and three freshmen starters. They were downright fabulous against Florida on Sunday, never seriously threatened after scoring the first 13 points.

“A lot of guys said we were really young and that we couldn’t get here,” said Burke. “We’re here now and we still have unfinished business.”

The Wolverines will have their work cut out against Syracuse (30-9), a team that has totally stuffed its NCAA opponents with a stifling zone defense. The Orange are headed to their first Final Four since winning it all in 2003 largely because they have allowed fewer than 46 points a game in the tournament.

“We were as active these two games here in Washington as we’ve ever been,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said after Saturday’s win over league rival Marquette, which is headed to a new version of the Big East next season. “I just really can’t say enough about how good these guys played on the defensive end of the court.”

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