By Dion Caputi
It started with 68 teams, 15 conferences, and four regions on March 19.
It is now down to three conferences, one location, and four teams: The Final Four.
Annually, the NCAA Men’s division 1 basketball tournament, or March Madness, offers an array of tasty matchups as the tournament winds down to the remaining quartet, and it is expected to be much of the same during this season’s final.
The two games left to compound into what will make up the national title showdown are very different, yet intriguing pairings.
The top squad still in the hunt is the Louisville Cardinals, the last number one seed in the tournament, who will square off against March Madness’ surprise number nine seed, the Wichita State Shockers.
The Cardinals are hot off the heels of perhaps this year’s marquee game, as coach Rick Pitino’s Louisville knocked out perennial contenders Duke, 85-63, in comfortable fashion. Sadly, despite the win, the team witnessed sophomore guard Kevin Ware suffer a horrific compound leg fracture, sparking the emotional triumph. En route to a Final Four birth in Atlanta, the Cardinals have dominated the field, with its lowest margin of victory coming by eight points, impressively.
Conversely, Wichita State Shockers enters the contest as this year’s Cinderella team, while making its first Final Four appearance since 1965. The school defeated its region’s second seeded team, the Ohio State Buckeyes 70-66.
While the Shockers have certainly shocked many while crashing the March Madness party, it’s worth noting they were crowned National Invitation Tournament champions in 2011. The tournament, a single-elimination format, is comprised of 32 teams not selected to participate in the annual NCAA bracket. Wichita State’s success is thanks to a strong infrastructure and excellent coaching, courtesy of two-time Missouri Valley Coach of the Year Gregg Marshall.
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On deck in the other semi-final is a pair of evenly contested fourth seeds, Michigan and Syracuse.
Syracuse and renowned head coach Jim Boeheim return to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003 – the year the Orange won it’s only national title. Syracuse’s journey to the semi-finals is as impressive as any in this year’s dance, with the school besting a gritty Cal squad and East region number one seed Indiana, before capping the run by holding strong contenders Marquette to a mere, jaw-dropping 39 points in the Elite 8.
The opposition Michigan Wolverines’ attendance will mark the school’s first trip back to the Final Four since 1993 – when the team drew national acclaim over the prominence of its starting lineup, nicknamed the “Fab Five.” Led by Naismith Men’s Player of the Year candidate, guard Trey Burke and sharp shooting Etobicoke-born Nik Stauskas, the Wolverines figure to be a dangerous test for Syracuse’s tough 2-3 zone defense, which proved to be the driving force in its victory over Marquette.
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With all four teams headed to Atlanta to prepare for the climax of the tournament, it’s certainly fair to say that this year’s installment of March Madness has yet again lived up to billing.
The best is yet to come on Saturday, April 6 in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.