Four for Four is our quick Monday look at a few things you need to know right here and now about the 2013 Final Four. We did it last April, too, but I can't remember why the introduction is so long.
This Final Four is wacky, right? Two No. 4 seeds? A No. 9? Wichita State? We said college basketball would be wide-open all season, and boy, were we right!
This may be the narrative you hear over the next five days, that a wide-open college basketball season has given way to a wide-open tournament, that the arrival of two No. 4-seeds and a No. 9 in Atlanta this week are the only fitting end to another unpredictable year of college basketball.
I disagree, and not only because Louisville, the consensus pre-tournament favorite, remains the clear pick to win it all. It's not that this Final Four was predictable -- only 47 of the 8.15 million Tournament Challenge bracketeers hit the lottery. It's just that at this point in the season, neither Michigan, Syracuse or Wichita State is playing like the teams that earned those seeds in the first place.
Which is not to say they didn't deserve those seeds. Each had its share of struggles, particularly down the stretch: Michigan finished the regular season 5-5, including a loss to Penn State and a 23-point loss in East Lansing. Syracuse finished 5-7, including the 39-point performance at Georgetown that Jim Boeheim referenced as he cut down the Verizon Center nets Saturday. Wichita State finished 5-5, including home losses to Indiana State and Evansville and a loss to last-place Southern Illinois. None rebounded to win their conference tournament title.
But in four NCAA tournament games, each has found something extra. For Michigan, it's been the remarkable emergence of inconsistent freshman star Mitch McGary (four tournament games: 33-45 from the field, 46 rebounds including a 25-and-14 performance against Kansas' Jeff Withey) who has given the Wolverines a major rebounding presence on the low block. For Syracuse, it's been the utter destruction an already very good 2-3 zone has wreaked on very good offenses, including the most efficient offense in the country (Indiana). The Orange have allowed just .72 points per trip in the tournament. For Wichita State, it's been great offense, particularly late in games. The Shockers shot 58.3 percent in the final five minutes of their four regional games. Somewhere, Gonzaga fans are nodding their heads.
But all of these teams were pretty darn good in the first place. It really wasn't that long ago that Michigan was ranked No. 1 in the country and was considered either the best or the second-best team in the Big Ten and a legitimate national title contender. Syracuse was the co-favorite to win the Big East pretty much all season. It beat Louisville at Louisville, remember? And Wichita State is now ranked No. 19 in Pomeroy rankings. That has a bit of a tournament boost baked in, but even so, the Shockers flirted with that level all season, and were rarely ranked outside the top 30.
It's not that we shouldn't be surprised these teams made it, or act like we saw it coming. (Nobody likes that guy. Also: 47 people.) The point is that these teams were all good in the first place, and have not only recovered from late-season struggles but have pushed their performances into different stratospheres. This is a really good Final Four, no matter what the numbers on the side of the bracket might say.