ATLANTA -- Throughout this wonderful college basketball season, the prevailing narrative has held that there is no dominant team.
Could have fooled me.
Anyone who has watched Louisville play the last six weeks knows that is not the case. The Cardinals encountered a little turbulence in January, when they lost three consecutive games, but in retrospect, it's hard to remember what everybody was so concerned about. Two of those losses came by two points to very good teams (Syracuse at home, Georgetown on the road). The third was by nine points at Villanova. The Cardinals only lost two other games this season -- by five points to Duke in November when they were missing center Gorgui Dieng because of a broken wrist, and the five-overtime classic at Notre Dame on Feb. 9. The Cardinals have not lost since then, and in the postseason they have steamrolled the competition, winning their three Big East tournament games by an average of 16 points and their four NCAA tournament games by 21.8 points. If that's not a dominant team, what is?
So we're going to have to revisit our narrative heading into this weekend's Final Four at the Georgia Dome. There is, in fact, a dominant team, and while I wouldn't go so far as to describe this Final Four as Louisville and the Three Dwarves, that's not far off. How about Louisville and the Three Challengers? Louisville and the Three Amigos? Louisville and the Three Teams That Aren't Louisville?
Or maybe I should just give you the Three Keys for each of the Three Others that would give them their best chance at upending our narrative. Sweetheart, get me rewrite.
Wichita State over Louisville
1. Slow the tempo. Louisville is faster than the Shockers, but by a smaller margin than you'd expect. According to Kenpom.com, the Cardinals are ranked 119th nationally in tempo. The Shockers are 202nd. But that does not do justice to Wichita State's need to limit possessions in this game. The Shockers should take advantage of transition opportunities if they present themselves, but if they take the bait and try to run with Louisville, they are only increasing the chances that the Cardinals go on one of their patented, back-breaking spurts. Wichita State is never going to look prettier than Louisville. Its best chance on Saturday night is to try to win ugly.
2. Take care of the ball. This goes hand-in-glove with key number one, but unfortunately, if the Shockers are able to limit their turnovers, it will be out of character for them. Wichita State was ranked seventh in the Missouri Valley (and 132nd nationally) in turnovers at 12.8 per game, and they are 144th nationally in turnover percentage. Malcolm Armstead's 1.63 assist-to-turnover ratio isn't terrible, but it's nothing special, either. In three of their NCAA tournament wins, the Shockers committed fewer turnovers than their season average. The lone exception was their 15 miscues against Gonzaga. The difference is that Louisville is much better at converting those interceptions into touchdowns. If Wichita State commits 15 more turnovers on Saturday, it could get ugly.
3. Shoot lights out. How did Wichita State overcome all those turnovers against Gonzaga? By turning in the program's best three-point shooting performance in years. Just two days after bricking their way to a 2-for-20 outing from long-range against Pitt, the Shockers drained 14 of their 28 attempts against Gonzaga. Freshman guard Ron Baker, who returned on March 8 after missing six weeks with a broken foot, was 4-for-6 from behind the arc and scored 16 points, the most he had scored since going for 18 points in the season opener. You can be sure that Louisville's perimeter defenders will know where Baker is on every offensive possession. Will someone else step up and have a career night as a shooter? In a dome, no less? Not likely, but not impossible.
Michigan over Louisville
1. Get Gorgui Dieng in foul trouble. Talk about mano-a-mano: The matchup between an attacking Mitch McGary and a defending Gorgui Dieng would be delectable if it happens. Dieng is arguably the most valuable player at the Final Four (his basketball I.Q. on offense is grossly underrated), and McGary is arguably the most improved. So it's incumbent upon McGary to attack Dieng at every opportunity. If Dieng blocks his shot, so be it. Dieng is taller, but McGary is stronger. The only question is whether he's ready to be nastier.
2. Win the free throw battle. There's good and bad news here for Michigan. On the one hand, the Wolverines lead the country in defensive free throw rate -- that is, their ability to keep opponents off the line. On the other hand, they're 338th in offensive free throw rate. That's surprising considering they have so many good penetrating guards, but it underscores the importance of attacking the rim instead of settling for jump shots. (It's especially tempting to sit back and jack up threes against Syracuse's zone. Don't do it, guys!) Michigan's performance in this area during the tournament has been mixed. The Wolverines limited South Dakota State to eight free throws, VCU to six free throws and Kansas to 10 free throws, but they allowed Florida to attempt 17. As a team, Michigan is shooting 68 percent from the line in the tournament, down slightly from its clip of 70.7 during the regular season.
The good news is that Louisville is ranked 131st in the country in defensive free throw rate, so the Wolverines should have the ability to drive and get fouled. The question is whether they take advantage -- and then knock down the shots.
3. Hope the Good Nik shows up. What's it gonna be, Mr. Stauskas? The YouTube sensation who drained all six of his three-point attempts en route to tying his season high with 22 points in the regional final against Florida? Or the Invisible Man who had bagels against Ohio State and Illinois and shot 1-for-8 (0-for-4 from three) in the Big Ten tourney loss to Wisconsin? If it's the former, I like Michigan's chances to at least keep it close if it faces Louisville. If it's the latter, the game could be over in a hurry.
Syracuse over Louisville
1. Take out Peyton Siva. These teams played three times this season, with Louisville winning two of them (including the Big East tournament final by 17 points). The biggest factor in all of those meetings, for better and worse, was the play of Siva, Louisville's 6-foot senior point guard. When Syracuse beat the Cards 70-68 on Jan. 19, Siva was awful, shooting 1-for-9 from the field (1-for-7 from three) and failing to attempt a single free throw. Even though Louisville won the second meeting on March 2 in the Carrier Dome, Siva was so bad (0-for-9) that Pitino parked him on the bench and admitted that Siva just couldn't handle Syracuse's zone. Siva was better in the Big East final, but he still shot 0-for-5 from three. So Louisville has showed that it can beat Syracuse without a stellar effort from its point guard, which means if Siva has a good game on Monday night, it will be almost impossible for the Orange to win.
2. Make jump shots. This is usually listed as a key to beating Syracuse's vaunted zone, but the Orange have been sporadic in this area of the game as well. This goes especially for its backcourt duo of Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, who both shot 29 percent from three-point range this season. Carter-Williams, the point guard, is a first-rate setup man, and at 6-foot-6 he can be an effective rebounder when he wants to be. (Witness his eight boards in the Elite 8 win over Marquette.) Triche, on the other hand, is a shooting guard, so if he's not knocking down shots, he has less to offer. In Syracuse's win over Louisville, Triche shot 5-for-7 from three-point range (9-for-13) overall and scored 23 points. In the two losses, he shot a combined 5-for-23, including 1-for-8 from three. If Triche can't find his range, Syracuse probably can't find a way to win.
3. Stay composed. It was hard not to watch the Orange come unraveled during the second half of the Big East final and not get the feeling that this was a team headed for a first-round loss. (Not that anyone I know was foolish enough to predict such a thing.) It's important to understand that this is part of Louisville's game plan. In order to beat you, the Cardinals want to frustrate you. All they need is a few minutes of carelessness from their opponent to break out on a game-deciding spurt. At Madison Square Garden, Syracuse committed 19 turnovers against Louisville's pressure, which enabled the Cardinals to turn a 16-point second-half deficit into a 17-point victory.
Most of this responsibility falls on Carter-Williams. He was visibly frustrated that night, and he sniped at his teammates for failing to catch some of his ill-advised passes. Body language is just as important as decision making. We know Syracuse is going to make a few mistakes against the Cardinals. Everybody does. The question is whether the Orange will compound them.
This is the NCAA tournament, so anything is possible. However, heading into this weekend's actions, the keys described above look like they are opening a door to nowhere. It's like Mike Tyson famously said: Everybody has a game plan until they get hit. Wichita State, Michigan and Syracuse all have a puncher's chance, but on Monday night, Louisville is going to be the last one standing.