When talking about the Final Four, it is expected year in and year out that power conferences such as the Big East and Big 12 are represented during college basketball’s final weekend. The Missouri Valley Conference is certainly not one of those conferences. It’s rare that we get a David and Goliath matchup during the Final Four. However, the Wichita State Shockers go into this weekend’s play as a No. 9 seed, joining an unlikely group of mid-major Final Four participants (George Mason in 2006, VCU and Butler in 2011 and Penn in 1979) that made history. This weekend, Cinderella has a date with the heavily-favored Louisville Cardinals, who many bracketologists around the globe picked to win this year’s March Madness from the beginning.
Louisville is playing their best basketball behind the attacking mentality of Russ Smith, who has put up 26 points and 3.3 steals per game for Rick Pitino‘s club during their postseason run. While Louisville is the more talented team, the emotional loss of Kevin Ware and the opportunity to play for a national championship in Ware’s city of Atlanta also poses a big hurdle for Wichita State to overcome. The Cards are ready to lock and load. However, obstacles are certainly familiar to the Shockers. Their players have both individually and collectively overcome various obstacles on their road to this year’s Final Four.
To say Wichita State is an underdog is obviously an understatement. While all of the “Shocker” cliches have pretty much run their course, the No. 9 seeded West Region champions are not only underdogs because their program plays in the Missouri Valley Conference, but because of the adversity that most of Greg Marshall‘s players have endured on their way to Atlanta.
Starting point guard Malcolm Armstead was told by people that he was crazy for leaving a full-ride at Oregon to not only demote himself to the MVC but to pay his own way as a redshirt transfer by selling used cars.
Ron Baker went under the radar during his high school career growing up in a town of 4,000 in Kansas before catching the eye of Marshall at a summer showcase. Unhappy with his other options, Baker opted to pay his own way during his redshirt freshman year, a decision that paid off as he’s averaging 11 points and four rebounds throughout the tournament, including four three-pointers against No. 1 seeded Gonzaga.
In fact, most of the team is made up of former JUCO players and Division I transfers.
In continuing our two-part series of our Final Four breakdown, we take a look at this weekend’s key factors for both Wichita St. and Louisville as they both look to reach the national title.
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The Wichita State Shockers (30-8, 69.4 points per game)
Tournament Record: (8-10)
Final Fours: 1
Controlling The Glass
Wichita State comes into Saturday’s contest bludgeoning their opponents in the rebounding battle with a margin of eight rebounds per contest, seventh in the nation and tops out of the remaining four teams in the tournament. It is essential that Carl Hall (6.9 rebounds per game) and Cleanthony Early (5.3 rebounds per game) establish their presence on the glass often and early if the Shockers want to have a chance. If Wichita can slow down guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva in transition and make Louisville play more of a half-court game, the Shockers shouldn’t have many problems controlling the paint, unless Gorgui Dieng has something to say about it.
The team play of Wichita State carried the Shockers throughout the early rounds of the tournament. While the MVC program doesn’t have one guy who stands out in the scoring column, the balanced attack of Malcolm Armstead, Cleanthony Early, Carl Hall and Ron Baker allows Wichita to be lifted up on any given night by someone different. Malcolm Armstead, the transfer point guard from Oregon, has been steady for the Shockers all season with averages just under 11 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals per night. The clubs leading scorer, Cleanthony Early, is a 6-8 forward who put up 12 points and seven rebounds against Ohio State and provided Wichita with a 16-point, seven-rebound output against top-seeded Gonzaga. Carl Hall is a capable scorer in the paint averaging 12 and a half per game and Ron Baker has the ability to stretch the floor with his three-point prowess.
The Louisville Cardinals (33-5, 73.6 points per game)
Tournament Record: 64-40 Final Fours: 9
With the absence of Kevin Ware, Louisville will have to divvy up the backup guard minutes, but if Russ Smith and Peyton Siva can stay out of foul trouble against Wichita’s attack, Louisville should be in good shape. While it is obviously important for these two to stay on the floor because of their imprint on the game, it is even more essential now that they aren’t as deep as before. With tournament averages of 35 points and seven assists during the postseason, Smith and Siva show no signs of slowing down.
Going up against an opponent who owns the rebounding margin by eight every night is going to be a tall task for the big man from Senegal. While this wasn’t a problem for Lousiville against the top rebounding margin team in the country (Colorado State), it is a little alarming that Dieng only finished with three rebounds. Like we stated in our Sweet Sixteen series on why Louisville would make the Final Four, when Dieng reaches double-double territory, the Cards are 8-1 (and now 9-1). While he’s only reached double figures once in rebounding during the tournament, the fact that he has only missed three shot attempts on the road to the Final Four has Cardinal Nation feeling pretty good about their chances come Saturday.
While it has been a memorable and historic run for this year’s Cinderella, Louisville is simply too talented and too experienced for Wichita State. Not only do I think Louisville will beat the Shockers handedly, but I believe they will be crowned national champions on Monday against Michigan, with Kevin Ware celebrating on the sideline in his home city of Atlanta.
Who do you think will win this game?
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