The survivors, those who've persisted toward Atlanta for the Final Four and a shot at the national title, are diverse.
There's the Big Ten team that's not the Big Ten team many expected to see there. And the Kansas school that believes in the code of the WuShock, not the Jayhawk.
The Big East's best team is still thriving. But Louisville's conference colleague, Syracuse, is coming, too.
They're all different. Their styles, their systems, their paths.
But there's a similarity that can't be overlooked as we prepare for the final chapter of the 2012-13 season. They're all led by elite quarterbacks (point guards).
Armstead has been a catalyst for Wichita State on both ends of the floor. The NBA draft stock of Carter-Williams has risen in this tournament. Burke did amazing things for Michigan throughout the regular season, and then he did things in the Big Dance that we're still trying to process. Siva is the maestro of a balanced Louisville team that's toyed with some of the best squads in the country for the past two weeks.
They're all here. They're all vital.
No, they won't do it alone. They can't.
Still, their teams will not fulfill their national title dreams unless they're productive in Atlanta. They know that.
But it's a responsibility they've all proved they can handle in the postseason.
Why they'll win the national title
Louisville: This team displayed its toughness when it recovered emotionally and mentally following Kevin Ware's leg injury in the first half of Sunday's win over Duke. That's the resilience this team has used to avoid a loss for nearly two months, winning 14 straight since that gut-wrenching five-OT classic at Notre Dame.
So how do you beat a team with that level of momentum? No team has figured that out since early February. It starts with the Cardinals' furious defense, a unit that's second nationally in defensive turnover rate (27.5 percent) per Ken Pomeroy. That presence allows the Cards to pounce on teams because they can disrupt the rhythm of their opponents as effectively as any squad in America, and turn their chaos into buckets on the other end.
Ask Duke. Louisville outscored the Blue Devils by 22 points in the final 15:44 of their Elite Eight win on Sunday. Thanks to UL contesting every shot, the Devils were 2-for-11 on catch-and-shoot jump shots, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
The perimeter speed of Siva (5.8 APG) and Russ Smith (18.8 PPG) assists Louisville in its ability to deliver sudden, Mike Tyson-like blows to opponents. The Cardinals are still an enigma in college basketball. And they're clearly the favorites to win it all in Atlanta.
They'll win the national title because they're just better than everyone else.
Syracuse: The Orange's 55-39 victory over Marquette in Saturday's Elite Eight matchup was surreal. But it was not unfamiliar. The bottom line is that Jim Boeheim's team is brutalizing offenses in the Big Dance. All four of Syracuse's NCAA tournament opponents have shot below 28 percent outside the paint. Syracuse scored 19 points off 14 Marquette turnovers and held the Golden Eagles to just 12 field goals.
This is a typical SU squad. It's a team with length and athleticism at every position. That's not abnormal. But Boeheim's players have executed the zone with discipline. Just one starter (James Southerland against Cal) has fouled out of a game since the NCAA tournament began. That's connected to its opponents' inability to crack the scheme.
They're struggling to get inside. So instead of attacking, they're settling for tougher shots outside the arc. Plus, players limit fouls and free throws for opponents. It's a bad combination for teams that want to stop Syracuse. They're not finding or creating ways to score.
Carter-Williams' effectiveness as an orchestrator has been the key to Cuse's offensive success. In four NCAA tournament games, he's recorded 19 assists and nine turnovers. Take away the five-turnover effort against Cal and MCW has a 4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the three other games.
Syracuse will win the national title because this zone is still a mystery that some of the best teams in the country haven't been able to decipher in recent weeks. That trend could continue in Atlanta.
Michigan: Burke (18.9 PPG, 6.8 APG, 1.6 SPG) is a threat on so many levels. He can drive and score. He can hit shots from the perimeter. He can connect inside the arc, too. His effectiveness permeates the entire program. Glenn Robinson III, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary & Co. have soared during this remarkable run for the Wolverines.
Throughout the season, UM wrestled with an inconsistent defense (65.7 PPG allowed in Big Ten play, ninth in the conference). That was supposed to be the issue that stopped it from reaching the Final Four. Lost in the criticism, however, was the potency of this team's offense. In their past two games, the Wolverines have scored 79 points or more against two assemblies (Florida and Kansas) that were ranked in the top six of Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. The Gators had one of the nation's top offensive units, but the Wolverines forced 15 turnovers and held them to 59 points and a 2-for-10 clip from the 3-point line.
Michigan will win the national title because Burke is the top playmaker in the field, and he's surrounded by talented shooters and underrated defenders.
Wichita State: No need to pinch yourself. This is real. The Shockers' Cinderella tale has been told many times in recent weeks. But it's somewhat misleading.
Yes, this is a crew with a bunch of players many had never heard of before the program's first Final Four run in nearly 50 years. Right now, however, this is also one of the top defensive units in the country, with confident veterans and a point guard who could start for most Big Six programs.
The Shockers can win the national title because they're forcing opponents into difficult shots all over the floor. They gave Ohio State bad angles at the rim in their Elite Eight victory in Los Angeles on Saturday.
And their stellar 3-point defense continues (Wichita State's four NCAA tourney opponents have shot 21-for-73 from the field). Teams haven't found much success against WSU in the paint either.
The Shockers held the Buckeyes (and that game is significant because it was the most talented team they'd faced in the Big Dance) under 50 percent in the paint. Carl Hall alone blocked 14.6 percent of his opponents' shots on the defensive possessions he played, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Ohio State scored 66 points on 70 possessions and shot 2-for-10 in the area between the arc and paint. There was just no place for the Buckeyes to go.
Wichita State also trusts Armstead (eight steals in four NCAA tournament victories), who is as much of a leader as any player in the Final Four. The Shockers love to start fast and deliver early KOs. This is a dangerous crew that is capable of outplaying the other three teams in Atlanta.
Michigan (4) vs. Syracuse (4): Trey Burke is arguably the best player in America. And his uncanny late-game explosion against Kansas in the Sweet 16 proved as much. Burke guides a unit that seems built to disrupt Syracuse's 2-3 zone. The Wolverines are shooting 49.5 percent from the field in the NCAA tournament. Burke is quick enough to exploit the creases in the scheme and find members of his talented supporting cast. Nik Stauskas (6-for-6 from the 3-point line in Sunday's win over Florida in the Elite Eight), Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. can all hurt opponents from different spots on the floor. Plus, Mitch McGary looks like a future All-American right now (two double-doubles in Michigan's four NCAA tourney games).
But Syracuse held Indiana, ranked second nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency rating per Ken Pomeroy, to just 50 points in the Sweet 16. And the Hoosiers were arguably the most complete team in the field once the pairings were announced on Selection Sunday. Creating smart shots to beat the 2-3 zone has been a difficult task for teams thus far.
And Michael Carter-Williams, who's committed just two turnovers in the past two games, looks like a lottery pick right now. He struggled against Cal's shifty guards in the round of 32, but his and Syracuse's length and athleticism could be a problem for Michigan's defenders. Carter's size (6-6) could cause matchup nightmares for John Beilein's squad.
Louisville (1) vs. Wichita State (9): Imagine this. The team that everyone expected to reach the national title game against the team that wasn't even picked to win its league before the season. The Cardinals have extended the momentum they attained when they reached the Final Four last season. They haven't lost since Feb. 9. They have the No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency rating per Ken Pomeroy.
The Shockers were off the radar a few months ago. They lost three consecutive Missouri Valley Conference games midway through their league slate, two at home and one to the MVC's last-place team. And they were in some jeopardy of missing the Big Dance. But they've been one of the toughest defensive units in the postseason. Proof? An Ohio State squad that was on fire from the 3-point line throughout the tournament (50 percent in three previous games) went 5-for-25 against Wichita State.
This squad is fearless. But it is facing the best defensive team in the country. Louisville's defense is unlike any the Shockers have faced in 2012-13. The Cardinals appear to be unstoppable. The Shockers, however, are used to tough odds. And they're equipped with underrated talent, too. Carl Hall, Cleanthony Early and Malcolm Armstead could be starters for multiple high-major programs.
Louisville: The Cardinals have fought through the toughest regional (Midwest) to reach this stage. They've defeated North Carolina A&T, Colorado State, Oregon and Duke in the NCAA tourney thus far.
Michigan: The Wolverines knocked off South Dakota State, VCU, Kansas and Florida in the South region on their way to Atlanta. Their late comeback against the No. 1 seed Jayhawks in the Sweet 16 was one of the tournament's best moments.
Syracuse: The Orange earned wins over Montana, Cal, Indiana and Marquette to get here. The Hoosiers were a No. 1 seed.
Wichita State: The Shockers lived up to their name. Wichita State, a 9-seed, beat Pitt, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State to reach the Final Four. WSU is the only remaining participant that's knocked off a 1-seed (Gonzaga) and a 2-seed (Ohio State).
Louisville: This is the 10th Final Four appearance for the Cardinals. It's their third trip under Rick Pitino. They reached the Final Four last season, losing to rival and eventual champion Kentucky. The Cards are seeking their first national championship game appearance since 1986, the last time they won a championship.
Michigan: The Wolverines haven't been to the Final Four since the Fab Five journeyed there in 1992 and '93. They won the national crown in 1989.
Wichita State: The Shockers reached the Elite Eight for the first time since 1981 this year. They haven't been to the Final Four since 1965. They're never won the national championship.
Syracuse: Jim Boeheim's squad won the program's only national title in 2003. Syracuse has played in three national title games since 1987.
Michigan: Once Trey Burke announced his decision to return for his sophomore season, projections for the Wolverines were elevated. They were ranked fifth in the Associated Press preseason poll.
Louisville: After last year's Final Four appearance, the Cardinals were early favorites -- along with Indiana -- to win the title in 2013. They've justified their No. 2 ranking in the AP's preseason poll.
Wichita State: The Shockers were picked fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference's preseason poll. That's because they lost their five top scorers from last season.
Syracuse: Syracuse was ranked ninth in the Associated Press preseason poll. Jim Boeheim had a strong recruiting class, and Michael Carter-Williams' return was a boost, too.
Five storylines for Syracuse and Michigan
1. Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone has helped the program storm to a furious close in the NCAA tournament. But a hot, versatile Michigan squad with a speedy guard (see Louisville) could be the worst foe for that defensive scheme.
2. Burke and Carter-Williams might be the two best point guards in the country. This is a crucial matchup for college basketball, but it's also significant for the multitude of NBA scouts who will analyze the performances of both players as they prepare for this summer's draft.
3. John Beilein's coaching career began in the late 1970s at Erie Community College in Buffalo, N.Y. He's come a long way since then, but he's never reached the Final Four. Will his trip to Atlanta end with his first national championship?
4. Mitch McGary's growth in the postseason has been a surprising development for the Wolverines. With the freshman excelling inside, UM is a legitimate threat against Syracuse at every position.
5. There's been a buzz about Boeheim's future. He has one national title. What's left for him to accomplish? You have to wonder whether this trip to the Final Four is the last one for the Orange's longtime leader.
Five storylines for Wichita State and Louisville
1. Kevin Ware's gruesome injury in Louisville's Elite Eight win was a rallying point for the program. But those scenarios can also add more pressure to the moment for any team. How will Louisville handle it?
2. Will Wichita State make history? No 9-seed or lower has ever reached the national championship game, much less won it. But the Shockers are playing as well as any remaining team not named Louisville.
3. The point guard battle in this matchup will be critical. Both Malcolm Armstead and Peyton Siva are proven leaders who've fueled their respective teams' runs to the Final Four.
5. Rick Pitino will be a legend even if he doesn't win another national title ring. But he's in a great position to earn his second crown. And it would be nostalgic if he defeated Syracuse in the championship game, the same program and coach that his 1995-96 Kentucky team defeated when he won his first and only national title.
Wichita State: Cleanthony Early (13.7 PPG) is a versatile athlete on both ends of the floor. His ability to guard and play multiple positions will be critical in this matchup. That's assuming he's completely healthy after suffering an ankle injury in the team's win over Ohio State in the Elite Eight.
Louisville: Chane Behanan hasn't cracked double figures since Feb. 27 (and that's not foreign in Pitino's system). But the 6-6, 250-pound sophomore is capable of greater offensive output.
Michigan: A month ago, Mitch McGary was just a raw freshman center still adjusting to the size and talent at this level. But he's averaged 17.5 PPG and 11.5 RPG in the NCAA tournament.
Syracuse: Brandon Triche (13.7 PPG) has been one of the team's most inconsistent performers this month. At his best, however, he's a capable combo guard who can boost Cuse's offense.
Louisville over Wichita State
Michigan over Syracuse
Louisville over Michigan