2013 Elite Eight

By Jeff Rapp, March 30th, 2013

OK, my bracket is just as blown up as yours and this NCAA Tournament has been as unpredictable as ever.

I’m still not quite sure how Kansas managed to fritter away an eight-point lead with just over a minute to go, but for the sake of sanity let’s just press on and deal with the situation at hand.

It’s time for the varsity to play. It’s time for four fierce battles to determine the 2013 Final Four, and eight worthy combatants stand at the ready.

This, of course, includes a team that is tightly covered on this website, the Ohio State Buckeyes. They’re a looking to return to the Final Four and erase the memory of last year’s national semifinal loss in New Orleans. Then again, so is Louisville.

Thad Matta and Rick Pitino are very well-acquainted with the Elite Eight pressure cooker. So is Billy Donovan. Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim just roll over on it when they sleep. John Beilein is less familiar but certainly has been around the block.

That leaves Marquette’s Buzz Williams and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, two coaches who certainly are earning their chops in the profession and have teams that respond to their iron wills.

Williams, though, emerged as a tournament footnote in 2011 when the Golden Eagles upset, of all teams, Syracuse and made it to the Sweet 16. Plus, Marquette is a program that has actually reached the Promised Land, having done so under the incomparable tutelage of the late Al McGuire in 1977.

That leaves Wichita State as the Cinderella of the field, or at least the mid-major that appears out of place. Only the Shockers are not.

Marshall law has taken over in Los Angeles as Wichita knocked out another upstart, La Salle, to set up a chance at making it to Atlanta.

“The goal is to try to get to Atlanta,” guard Malcolm Armstead said. “This is a dream come true and now it’s 40 minutes away.”

“We’re just trying to make history,” guard Demetric Williams added. “We know what we’re capable of. We look at each other as a team that can be in the national championship game.”

The Shockers beat the likes of VCU, Iowa and Creighton during the regular season and have been fantastic in the Big Dance with wins over No. 8 Pittsburgh and No. 1 Gonzaga in Salt Lake City. None of them were a fluke.

“They definitely deserve to be here,” OSU point guard Aaron Craft said. “If someone doesn’t think they do, I don’t know what they’re watching.”

So a case could be made for any of the eight teams left standing. But this is the Predictions segment of SportsRappUp.com and I actually have some confidence going into the Elite Eight. Here’s a hint for the recommendations ahead: defense.

OK, here we go:

EAST REGIONAL FINAL

Who: No. 4 Syracuse (29-9) vs. No. 3 Marquette (26-8)
When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. Eastern
Where: Verizon Arena, Washington, D.C.
Line: Syracuse by 5
What To Watch: The ’Cuse is the East Coast media darling once again thanks to decisive wins over Montana, Cal and top-seed Indiana in the tournament. All three looked lost against SU’s vaunted zone defense. IU center Cody Zeller probably is still seeing Orange. He kept trying to set up shop either in the low post or high post against Syracuse instead of working into the mid-post and looking for mid-range shots and kick-out passes. Marquette is not a great passing team and also doesn’t shoot threes well at all – right around 30 percent as a team for the season. Still, Williams’ squad plays with a lot of heart and has a capable weapon off the bench in athletic forward Davante Gardner.
Key Matchup: Marquette’s transition defense vs. Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams.
The Eagles are excellent at getting set up defensively but Carter-Williams is a handful and one of the top assist-makers in the country. Marquette has to harness him somewhat to have a chance.
My Call: Syracuse has a Hall of Fame coach and a bevy of players who were a step away from the Final Four last year and don’t want to feel that hurt again. Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine are no longer in the backcourt but Brandon Triche knows how to help run the offense and SU is in a defensive groove. Marquette looked terrific in shredding Miami (Fla.), but, quite frankly, the Hurricanes also helped the cause with lousy shot selection and worse outside shooting. Syracuse will drive the basketball – and get results.
Orange by 7

WEST REGIONAL FINAL

Who: No. 9 Wichita State (29-8) vs. No. 2 Ohio State (29-7)
When: Saturday, 7:05 p.m. Eastern
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles
Line: Ohio State by 4½
What To Watch: Forwards Deshaun Thomas and Sam Thompson carried the offense in the first half against Arizona Thursday and another lengthy wing, LaQuinton Ross, came up big in the second stanza, including a dead-eye, game-winning three with 2 seconds remaining. That and Craft’s heroics against Iowa State have this believing in can do no wrong in crunch time. Still, the Buckeyes have been a bit fortunate in the last week as well and would be well-served to open an early lead and make Wichita State lose a little belief and play catch-up. The Shockers have many willing contributors including regular-season leading scorer Cleanthony Early (13.7 points per game), top board man Carl Hall (7.0 rebounds per game), and Armstead, a playmaker on both ends with 4.0 assists and 1.9 steals per game. The Buckeyes also have to account for guard Ron Baker, who is shooting right around 43 percent from beyond the three-point arc. The Shockers downed La Salle 72-58 behind 16 points and eight rebounds from Hall. That opened the door to Wichita State’s first Elite Eight since 1981.
Key Matchup: Craft vs. Armstead.
Craft has been the OSU money man on both ends of the court in the tournament and he’s compiled 18 points and nine assists in three tournament games. He runs the show and sets the tempo. However, he going to have to watch his aggressiveness. He played the last half of the first half against Arizona with two fouls and nearly was required to play an overtime with four. Matta doesn’t need those kind of heart palpitations again. Armstead is the kind of guy who can heat up in a hurry and has come up big in several of the Shockers’ key wins.
My Call: No way I’m going against karma here. The Buckeyes have scraped by the last two games but have won 11 in a row overall and their confidence is sky high. They can adjust to the pace of a game and the referees as well as any team left in the tournament, and their defense is borderline stifling when it needs to be.
Buckeyes by 11

SOUTH REGIONAL FINAL

Who: No. 4 Michigan (29-7) vs. No. 3 Florida (29-7)
When: Sunday, 2:20 p.m. Eastern
Where: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas.
Line: Florida by 2½
What To Watch: Trey Burke. The kid is worth the price of admission. He turned on the turbo boosters late in the contest with Kansas and also in the triumphant overtime, showing the nation why he’s considered an All-American. His 28-foot bomb to tie the score with 4.2 seconds remaining in regulation is one of the most iconic moments of this year’s tournament and should put more fear into anyone who has to face the Wolverines. Florida, though, might have just the formula to slow down Burke and the UM offense. UF led the SEC by allowing just 53.2 ppg and has a trio of guards who know how to slow down ball handlers in Mike Rosario, Kenny Boynton and Scottie Wilbekin.
Key Matchup: Florida’s front line vs. UM center Mitch McGary.
The Wolverines’ excitable frosh is a handful on pick-and-roll plays and has a knack for being on the correct side of the basket when the ball is batted around. Florida can pound him a bit with 6-9 Patric Young but the matchup likely falls on 6-10 Erik Murphy, who was rendered ineffective at times in Friday night’s Sweet 16 contest with Florida Gulf Coast.
My Call: Donovan is now 31-10 in the NCAA Tournament and he and Matta still seem to be overlooked when analysts discuss top postseason coaches. Florida came that close to making the Final Four last year before losing to Louisville but has the makeup to make up for it this year. Michigan is a little too comfortable playing from behind, but that wouldn’t be a good idea in a game of this magnitude. Another valiant effort by Michigan, but this time a three-ball short.
Gators by 3

MIDWEST REGIONAL FINAL

Who: No. 1 Louisville (32-5) vs. No. 2 Duke (30-5)
When: Sunday, 5:05 p.m. Eastern
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
Line: Louisville by 3½
What To Watch: Louisville’s halfcourt defense is a wonder. The Cardinals help and recover almost on cue to the pleadings of Pitino, who has this team as the top power remaining in line for the throne. In fact, Louisville is the only 1-seed remaining as Gonzaga, Kansas and Indiana couldn’t back up their lofty assigned digit. Pitino is a gaudy 45-16 in the NCAA tourney and is a master at manipulating lineups and game plans to suit the needs of the moment. Kryzyzewski is a bit more trusting and will call pet plays until they are stopped. Duke PG Quinn Cook knows the ball has to get channeled to big men Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, and each is capable of taking over a ballgame. Freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon is an X-factor because of his ability to create plays when the pace ratchets up. Duke wants this game to get in the 80s; Louisville would like it to stay in the 60s.
Key Matchup: Cardinals guard Peyton Siva vs. Duke’s Seth Curry. They play on such loaded and balanced teams that their statistics don’t match their talent level, but each is a big concern because of their ability to take and make big-time shots. Siva has been a bit puzzling in his career but he is a senior who certainly sees the opportunity at hand.
My Call: Anybody got a coin? This figures to be as well-played and entertaining as any game in the tournament, and the winner will be hailed as the absolute favorite heading to Atlanta. If I kept with the theme here I’d opt for the more defensive-oriented team, but the field has to have somebody who can light it up on offense, right?
Dookies by 2