Final Four Preview: WuShock, Beilein vs Boeheim, More

Hide ya kids, hide ya wife: WuShock is going to the Final Four. I’m talking about the Wichita State Shockers’ mascot. Created in 1904 when Wichita was known as Fairmount College, a student came up with Wheatshockers as the football mascot. Not only were the football games played on a wheat field, but many of the Fairmount players paid for college by harvesting (“shocking”) wheat. (I’m sure you already knew all of this.) Wheatshockers was shortened to Shockers and the mascot itself was named WuShock in 1948.

wushock

“The school needed a mascot who gave a tough impression, with a serious, no-nonsense scowl,” according to the school’s website. There is nothing about haunting childrens’ dreams. WuShock was redesigned in 1998, which gave it a “pumped-up physique and revved-up attitude.” Oh, great, a stronger, more aggressive killing machine. In 2006, “Wu” got a facelift, which reduced the weight of its head from 12 pounds to about five, making it lighter and faster as well. How the Nebraska Cornhuskers mascot can be so friendly-looking and Wichita’s be so terrifying is beyond me.

To get to the title game, Wichita will have to beat Louisville, a 10.5-point favorite. It is the second biggest spread in a Final Four game since the Tournament expanded in 1985 (Duke was an 11-point favorite over Michigan State in 1999). Louisville beat Oregon in the Sweet 16 by eight points, which was Rick Pitino’s smallest margin of victory in a regional semifinal. Pitino is now 11-0 in the Sweet 16 with an average margin of 20 points. Louisville dominated the second half against Duke last Sunday to get to Atlanta.

It was supposed to be a homecoming for Louisville’s Kevin Ware, who was born in the Bronx but moved to Atlanta when he was 14. The horrific leg injury he suffered in the first half of the Duke game won’t prevent him from joining his teammates this week. On Tuesday he tweeted a photo of himself standing on crutches, accompanied by the message, “Back to my brothers I go.”

His new Twitter profile photo is an illustration of the Cardinal mascot with a cast and a crutch, his wing raised in the air. The drawing was done by Marc Murphy, a cartoonist for the Courier-Journal.

From a basketball standpoint, Louisville is the favorite to cut down the nets because their offense is starting to catch up with their defense (both are now in the top-5 of KenPom’s efficiency rankings). Even without the threat of the three-pointer—Louisville doesn’t take or make many threes—the Cards get to the hoop with regularity. A win on Saturday would set up either a fourth meeting with Syracuse or what figures to be a wildly entertaining showdown with Michigan.

Peyton Siva Louisville
Caption: Louisville point guard Peyton Siva

That the Wolverines are in Atlanta is something of a miracle, considering they had less than a one percent chance of coming from behind in the final minutes of their Sweet 16 game against Kansas. For Michigan fans who came along after the 1997 national title in football, the Kansas comeback may have been the best victory they’ve seen in any sport. In discussing it with my Michigan friends, we decided it was a close call between that and the first football night game against Notre Dame in 2011. I was at that game and it was incredible, but the stakes were higher last Friday. With Michigan now in the Final Four, I’ll say this was the “better” win. At the very least, it was the most exciting game of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, the Tourney’s first overtime game since 2011.

Perhaps Michigan, ranked No. 1 earlier in the season before stumbling a bit heading into the Big Dance, got its swagger back once John Beilein started wearing an enormous Michigan ring during games (perhaps made after Michigan won the Big Ten regular season last year). To get another ring, Beilein must first solve the Syracuse zone.

Syracuse had lost three of four heading into the Big East Tournament before ripping off three wins and leading Louisville by 16 in the second half of the final. It was clear the Orange had recaptured its mojo in Madison Square Garden and it has carried into the NCAA Tournament. Syracuse has relied on its defense all season, but that’s been especially true in the Dance. In three of their four games, Syracuse’s opponent had its least efficient offensive performance of the season.

Considering the size of the six players who play most—6’4” Brandon Triche, 6’6” Michael Carter-Williams, 6’8” C.J. Fair and James Southerland, 6’9” Rakeem Christmas, and 6”10 Baye Keita—it can seem like all six of them are on the court at once. Hoisting three-pointers might beat the 2-3 zone you see in your adult rec league, but that won’t fly against Syracuse, whose opponents shoot just 28 percent from deep, third worst in the country. Syracuse’s length generates turnovers in the form of blocks (tops in the country) and steals.

The Syracuse zone is tough to crack—even Beilein, an offensive mastermind, has never beaten Jim Boeheim. This Michigan squad is a lot more talented than his West Virginia teams, so scoring might not be an issue for Michigan. Instead, the game might come down to Michigan’s ability to defend Syracuse’s versatile forwards.

My bracket has a lot of Xs already, but here goes nothing:

Final Four
Louisville 71
Wichita 59

Michigan 70
Syracuse 66

Championship
Louisville 73
Michigan 65

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