A pair of No. 4 seeds meet in the second Final Four matchup on Saturday night, as the Syracuse Orange tangle with the Michigan Wolverines for the right to play for the national championship.
The earlier Final Four clash pits Wichita State against Louisville.
Syracuse, under the tutelage of legendary coach Jim Boeheim, is appearing in its fifth Final Four and its first since winning it all back in 2003. Boeheim is 3-0 in national semifinals (1987, 1996, 2003), and the Orange own a record of 60-35 all-time in the tournament.
SU earned its way to Atlanta by knocking off Montana (81-34), California (66-60), Indiana (61-50) and Marquette (55-39), and the team has won seven of its last eight games dating back to the Big East Conference Tournament -- the lone setback during the stretch coming in that event's championship game against Louisville.
Syracuse (30-9) had lost four of its final five regular season games, and with the emotion of this being its final campaign in the Big East, the fact that his team has reached this point is something of a surprise to Boeheim.
"We didn't expect to get here, but you always have that hope. It's a great feeling. This team has come together, and sometimes that happens at tournament time." Boeheim continued, "Whenever you get here [Final Four] it's great. I was disappointed last year as I thought we had the team to do it. But this team's a good team, and we've been playing good basketball so I'm happy at this stage."
It's been 20 years since Michigan last reached the Final Four, as the "Fab Five" as they were affectionately named, won their 1993 semifinal bout against Kentucky before falling to North Carolina in the national championship game. The Wolverines also reached the title tilt the season before, losing to Duke. Since then, both appearances have been vacated due to NCAA sanctions, but this year's club is hopeful of playing in Monday's championship game as it seeks the second national title in program history, the first coming back in 1989. Michigan's adjusted NCAA Tournament record currently stands at 40-18, and the team has won five of its last six games -- the loss coming in the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Conference Tournament against Wisconsin.
This is Michigan's fifth official Final Four appearance, seventh when taking into account the two vacated seasons, and the team's 30-7 record this year is a testament to both the talent on the roster and the coaching job turned in by John Beilein and his staff. UM's road to Atlanta has featured several easy wins along with an overtime thriller. Getting past South Dakota State (71-56) and VCU (78-53) wasn't really an issue, but it took a miracle shot from star guard Trey Burke to help propel the club past Kansas (87-85 in OT), and then it used the momentum garnered from that win to whip Florida (79-59) in last Sunday's South Regional final.
Beilein, who has never beaten a Boeheim-coached squad in nine previous opportunities, spoke about reaching this point for the first time in his 36- year coaching career.
"I didn't think much about that; I didn't think it was possible because I didn't think about it. I'm sort of always thinking about what can we do right now to be a better team, what can I do to be a better coach, a better father, a better teacher. Always with the idea that if you do all those things, anything is possible in your life."
Syracuse owns an 8-5 series advantage over Michigan, with the most recent encounter taking place in the 2010 Legends Classic which the Orange won in a 53-50 final. This bout marks the first-ever meeting between the two in the NCAA Tournament.
In last weekend's East Regional final against fellow Big East member Marquette, James Southerland scored 16 points, C.J. Fair tallied 13 points and six rebounds, and Michael Carter-Williams finished with 12 points, eight boards, six assists and five steals to lead the Orange to a relatively easy win. SU played exceptional defense, taking advantage of 14 turnovers while limiting the Golden Eagles to 22.6 percent field goal efficiency, which included a woeful 3-of-24 showing from 3-point range.
Carter-Williams, who was named the East Region's MVP, has been the catalyst for Syracuse for much of the season, as he is averaging 12.1 points, 4.9 caroms and 7.4 helpers per contest. Fair (14.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg) is the club's leading scorer and rebounder, and additional production comes from both Brandon Triche (13.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.5 apg) and Southerland (13.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg). Rakeem Christmas rounds out the starting five, and while he isn't much of a threat offensively (5.1 ppg), he can be a game-changer on defense (72 blocks). Carter-Williams is also a defensive whiz, notching 109 of the team's 355 steals.
Syracuse nets an average of 70.8 ppg while permitting a mere 58.6 ppg -- the latter figure ranking the team 21st in the country. Its .368 field goal percentage against ranks third-best nationally.
Michigan guard Nik Stauskas (22 points, three assists) drained all six of his 3-point attempts, five of which came during a 19-point first half, and the Wolverines put forth a solid defensive effort as they routed third-seeded Florida last weekend to punch their ticket to Atlanta. Burke tallied 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, while Mitch McGary added 11 points and nine boards in the surprisingly easy win. UM wound up going 10-of-19 from beyond the arc (.526), while at the same time holding the Gators to 41.1 percent accuracy on their total shots, which included a poor 2-of-10 showing from long range.
Burke (18.8 ppg, 6.8 apg), who was named the 2012-13 Big Ten Player of the Year and who also won the Wooden Award and Oscar Robertson Trophy as the national player of the year, is clearly the guy Beilein and the young Wolverines rely on most. Despite his undeniable talent, Burke isn't the only one to command attention from opposing teams though, as Tim Hardaway, Jr. (14.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Stauskas (11.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, .471 3-point FG percentage), Glenn Robinson III (11.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and McGary (7.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg) have all proven their worth at different times this season.
As a team, Michigan averages 75.5 ppg while allowing 62.9 ppg, and the Maize and Blue simply don't make many mistakes (9.4 turnovers per tilt) while converting 48.5 percent of their field goal attempts, which includes a 38.5 percent mark from beyond the arc.