NCAA Final Four preview: Tale of the tape


NCAA Final Four preview: Tale of the tape

Your bracket may already be busted and your favorite Philly team may have already been eliminated.

But there is still basketball -- very good basketball -- left to be played before the NCAA tournament concludes and “One Shining Moment” is sung.

To help get you ready for college basketball’s biggest weekend, here’s a breakdown of both NCAA Final Four games in Atlanta -- from the important to the inane.

Wichita State (30-8) vs. Louisville (33-5)
Saturday, 6:09 p.m., CBS

Road to Atlanta
Ninth-seeded Wichita State has enjoyed one of the most improbable runs in NCAA tournament history, upsetting three teams in the Pomeroy top 11 (Pittsburgh, Gonzaga and Ohio State) and beating a La Salle team we all know is very difficult to match up against. Louisville, the top seed in the Midwest, had a relatively easy road before beating Duke in the regional finals, needing to get by North Carolina AT&T, Colorado State and Oregon. Advantage: Wichita State.

Gregg Marshall has coached his mid-major teams (first Winthrop and now Wichita State) to the Big Dance in nine of the past 15 seasons and will likely be a candidate for some high-major jobs in the near future. Rick Pitino has taken three different teams to the Final Four and is one of the best at his profession. Advantage: Louisville.

Star attraction
For Louisville, Russ Smith is one of the best scorers in college basketball and Peyton Siva is one of the nation’s premier point guards. Wichita State leading scorer Cleanthony Early is not exactly a household name (although he should be because that’s an awesome name). Advantage: Louisville.

Louisville small forwards Wayne Blackshear and Luke Hancock will both likely have to play expanded minutes in the backcourt following the horrific injury to top reserve guard Kevin Ware (more on that below). For Wichita State, redshirt freshman guard Ron Baker missed 21 games this season because of a stress fracture but returned in time for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and has become one of the most unlikely starters in the Final Four. Advantage: Wichita State.

Style of play
The Shockers are one of the best rebounding teams in the country and have used their strength inside to get this far in the NCAA tournament. Louisville likes to press and run, using its exceptional defensive pressure to make you turn the ball over. The Cardinals rank second in the nation in steals per game, behind only VCU. Advantage: Louisville.

This is Wichita State’s second Final Four ever. This is Louisville’s second Final Four in the last two years. Advantage: Louisville.

Wichita State has an entire mid-major army behind them hoping to see the Shockers break through and do what mid-major brethren Butler, VCU and George Mason could not: win a national championship. Louisville has the extra motivation of playing for Ware, who suffered one of the most gruesome injuries ever shown on TV (and who also appears to be just an incredible person and teammate in subsequent interviews). Advantage: Louisville.

Nothing against the Cardinal bird, but “Shockers” is a great name (especially for headline writers) that is derived from students shocking wheat. That’s why their mascot has a head full of wheat (or something). Advantage: Wichita State.

Famous basketball alumni
Wes Unseld was a three-time All-American at Louisville before his Hall of Fame NBA playing career began. Xavier “The X-Man” McDaniel was the first person to lead the nation in both scoring and rebounding while at Wichita State. Advantage: Louisville.

Famous non-basketball alumni
The great Johnny Unitas starred at Louisville and fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Parcells went to Wichita State. Advantage: Louisville.

Philly connection
Longtime Eagles kicker and fan favorite David Akers went to Louisville. Joe Carter, forever a Philly nemesis, was the Sporting News magazine’s 1981 College Player of the Year while at Wichita state. Advantage: Louisville.

Louisville is a heavy favorite for good reason. The Cardinals are a well-coached and talented team that has all the tools to win in March -- and now April. Wichita State has Top 25 talent, but its magical run will end two wins shy of a national title. Louisville 71, Wichita State 62.

Syracuse (30-9) vs. Michigan (30-7)
Saturday, 8:49 p.m., CBS

Road to Atlanta
As No. 4 seeds, both Syracuse and Michigan needed to upset a top seed, as the Orange beat Indiana and Michigan toppled Kansas. Michigan also had to get by tough VCU and Florida teams (as well as South Dakota State), while Syracuse topped Montana, California and Marquette. Advantage: Michigan.

John Beilein has now enjoyed some March magic with both Michigan and West Virginia and is one of just nine college coaches to have taken four different teams to the NCAA tournament. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim has been the head coach at only one school –- but has won over 900 games there. Advantage: Syracuse.

Star attraction
Kansas probably still has nightmares about Trey Burke's taking the game over and leading a huge Sweet 16 comeback for Michigan. Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams is a smooth scorer and a likely first-round draft pick if he comes out –- but he won’t get picked ahead of Burke, the 2012-13 Wooden Award winner. Advantage: Michigan.

Mitch McGary averages less than 20 minutes per game, but the Michigan freshman big man has emerged as one of the best players in the NCAA tournament, averaging 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in the Wolverines’ four wins. Syracuse’s James Southerland shoots over 40 percent from three-point range and attempts more than six long-balls per game. Advantage: Michigan.

Style of play
Michigan likes to run but will need to figure out a way to crack Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone when it gets into the halfcourt set. And teams that don’t see it much usually struggle to adapt to it. Advantage: Syracuse.

Syracuse is the fifth winningest Division I program of all-time and holds the active record for consecutive winning seasons with 42. Michigan also has a proud history but didn’t make any NCAA tournament appearances between 1998 and 2009 and was hit hard by NCAA sanctions in the ’90s. Advantage: Syracuse.

Michigan is back in the Final Four exactly 20 years after the Wolverines’ “Fab Five” went to the national championship and lost on Chris Webber’s infamous timeout call. Two of Michigan’s best players –- Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III –- are also the sons of former NBA stars. Syracuse is back in the Final Four exactly 10 years after Carmelo Anthony led the Orange to a national championship. Advantage: Michigan.

Otto the Orange is fun for the whole family. Michigan is one of the few colleges that doesn’t have a mascot after it stopped bringing real wolverines to football games in 1927. Something about safety issues. Pfft. Advantage: Syracuse.

Famous basketball alumni
Michigan’s Glen Rice holds the NCAA record for most points in a single NCAA tournament with 184 in 1989. Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony is one of the premier players in the NBA. Advantage: Syracuse.

Famous non-basketball alumni
New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin (Syracuse) has gotten the better of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (Michigan) in a couple of Super Bowls. But still. Advantage: Michigan.

Philly connection
By the time Chris Webber (Michigan) got to the 76ers, he was past his prime. For all his critics, Donovan McNabb (Syracuse) was a great Eagle. Advantage: Syracuse.

This is going to be a really fun game between two teams catching fire at the right time. But if Burke and McGary keep doing what they have been doing, nobody is beating the Wolverines. Michigan 79, Syracuse 76.

Crash kills Nebraska punter, former Michigan State punter

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Crash kills Nebraska punter, former Michigan State punter

WAUKESHA, Wis. -- Nebraska punter Sam Foltz and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler have died in a car crash in Wisconsin after working at a kicking clinic, a sheriff's department official said Sunday. LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye was injured in the crash.

Waukesha County Sheriff's Lt. Thom Moerman said speed was likely a factor in the single-vehicle crash that happened around 11:45 p.m. Saturday.

The 24-year-old Sadler, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was driving. He and 22-year-old Foltz, of Greeley, Nebraska, both died at the scene. Delahoussaye, 21 of New Iberia, Louisiana, was also a passenger. He was treated at Waukesha Memorial Hospital and released. A statement from LSU said his injuries were minor and that he was scheduled to return home Monday.

Moerman said in a statement that Sadler lost control on the wet pavement, left the roadway and struck a tree.

The University of Nebraska said Sunday the team will skip this week's planned Big Ten media days in Chicago because of Foltz's death. Officials with Michigan State didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Foltz was a three-year starter for the Nebraska team and last year he was named the Big Ten's punter of the year. Foltz graduated from Nebraska with a degree in agronomy in May. He led the Big Ten in punting last year at 44.2 yards per kick and ranked fifth in school history (42.6).

Nebraska Coach Mike Riley said Foltz was respected on the team, and had a positive influence on everyone he interacted with.

"The young men in our football program are hurting but I know that their strength of character and resolve will bring us together and we will honor Sam every day moving forward," Riley said.

Several hundred friends and teammates of Foltz gathered outside Memorial Stadium in Lincoln Sunday afternoon to remember him. Several players talked about how hard Foltz' worked and his faith in God.

"Sam was a kind and thoughtful young man who was a leader on the playing field, in the classroom, and in his community," Nebraska Chancellor Ronnie D. Green said in a statement. "He was an exemplary student-athlete who grew as a player and as a person on his path to recent completion of his degree in agronomy from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and anyone who knew him can testify that he had an enduring influence on those around him."

Sadler was a four-year starter and four-time academic All-American at Michigan State. He finished his college playing career after the 2014 season. He drew something of a cult following during his playing days because of his sense of humor and wit.

"I just asked my waitress what sport she thought I played. Her answer? Disk golf. Time to reevaluate my life," Sadler once tweeted.

He helped get his own mock Heisman Trophy candidacy rolling one season by pushing the hashtag (hash)sadler4heisman. He would also regularly exchange funny lines on Twitter with the (at)FauxPelini account, a popular parody of the former Nebraska and current Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini.

"Mike impacted so many people not only as a football player, but also from an academic standpoint and in the community as well," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said in a statement. "The world has lost a rising star who dreamed big and was accomplishing those dreams, one after another. He was one of those people that brightened your day."

Dan Tracy with Kohl's Kicking said both Sadler and Foltz had been working at a weekend clinic at the camp in Wisconsin. Tracy said the camp ended early Sunday after an announcement about the deaths.

A statement from kicking camp director Jamie Kohl said the staff was mourning with the players' families and football programs.

"We mourn today with all of the people who were better men and women for knowing Sam and Mike," Kohl said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with them."

The Basketball Tournament: Pitt-led Untouchables take down Boeheim's Army

Noah Levick/ Contributor

The Basketball Tournament: Pitt-led Untouchables take down Boeheim's Army

As far as The Basketball Tournament was concerned, Thursday night’s game was a matchup between No. 2 seed Boeheim’s Army and No. 3 seed Untouchables. However, in the minds of the players and the rowdy fans at Philadelphia University’s Gallagher Center, it was Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh, another edition of a classic rivalry.

Pitt and Syracuse, as the two normally do, delivered an entertaining game, a 91-84 win by the Untouchables, who were led by a team-high 22 points on 8 of 11 shooting from streaky lefty Jermaine Dixon. Ricky Harris, a former UMass guard and friend of Dixon, added 16 points.

For Syracuse, Friends Central High School alumnus and NBA veteran Hakim Warrick was the star attraction. Warrick posted 14 points and two crowd-pleasing dunks. Syracuse had another player from the Philadelphia area in center Rick Jackson. If the name rings a bell, it may be because of his partnership at both Syracuse and Neumann-Goretti High School with point guard Scoop Jardine. The January 2006 contest between Episcopal Academy, led by future NBA players Wayne Ellington and Gerald Henderson, and Neumann-Goretti, headed by Jackson and Jardine, is one of the better Philadelphia high school basketball games in recent memory.

Unsurprisingly, the key for the Untouchables was their smooth ball movement and shooting against Boeheim’s Army's vaunted 2-3 zone. The Untouchables held a substantial edge from three-point territory, making 13 of 31 attempts, compared to 6 of 19 for the 'Cuse contingent. After nailing one of his four three-balls to give the Untouchables a 40-28 lead, Dixon leaned over to the Boeheim’s Army bench and exchanged a few words.

James Southerland, a “ringer” for Syracuse brought in for this game, said, “There were some words here and there. But it’s a rivalry, so that’s how it’s going to be.”

Dixon said the level of intensity is “pretty much the same [as playing in the Big East]. We knew when we were playing them what kind of matchup it was going to be — physical. We knew they were going to sit in the zone, we knew what we were going to do. But ultimately, we were ready to win.”

The addition of Southerland and Donte Greene as ringers appeared to put a greater burden on coach Ryan Blackwell, who had to allocate minutes to 11 players. Pitt suited up only eight.

“We just struggled to find the best five-guy rotation throughout the game,” Boeheim’s Army guard Brandon Triche said.

The Untouchables had none of the same issues gelling as a unit. Dixon and coach Brandon Driver studied film and organized a pregame walkthrough to refresh their memories about how to attack the Boeheim’s Army zone. Even the players who didn’t share the court during college looked like they played together before.

“Team chemistry was big,” Harris said. “You add a big-name guy to your team, nine times out of 10, that’ll hurt you because they want to go out and show how good they are instead of playing the right way.”

Along with the desire to beat their rivals, personal pride was a major motivator for the The Untouchables.

“We’re competitive guys, we’ve always been underdogs our whole lives, and we want to show people that we can still play basketball five, six years out of college,” Harris said, “and I think we’re starting to bring our names back to light and proving ourselves again.”

LeVance Fields, the 5-foot-10 point guard of the 2009 Pitt team that lost to Villanova on Scottie Reynolds’ game-winner in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, continues to lead his squad. He yelled out instructions from the bench and called his teammates into a huddle when they started to show some nerves from the free throw line in the final minute.

Antonio Graves, who made four three-pointers and scored 12 points in only 19 minutes, said, “Getting to practice and compete against guys like LeVance every day, it made playing teams like Villanova, Syracuse and Connecticut so much easier because we knew we had competed so hard in practice.”

That competitive spirit and strong work ethic clearly led The Untouchables to be confident in their ability to beat any team in this tournament … especially Boeheim’s Army.

“Many of us haven’t lost to Syracuse,” Fields said. “Unfortunately, me and ‘Ton (Graves) lost to Syracuse when (Gerry) McNamara had that unbelievable run at [Madison Square] Garden, so we just wanted to keep our good streak going against them. Even though it’s years later, no disrespect, we feel like we own Syracuse. We always play pretty well against their zone, and we felt like we were going to do that tonight.”

Pitt players have proven time and again that they will beat you if you underestimate them. They have a difficult quarterfinal game against No. 1 seed City of Gods Saturday at noon on ESPN2. But as long as they’re playing with other guys whose toughness and dedication they trust, they’ll enjoy themselves and feel pretty good about their chances.

“We always talk about Pitt guys play together,” Dixon said. “We missed that. It’s always fun playing with Pitt guys, so that was the No. 1 thing — we wanted to play together.”

The Basketball Tournament: Philly-heavy Family Over Everything eliminated

Noah Levick/ Contributor

The Basketball Tournament: Philly-heavy Family Over Everything eliminated

It’s not often that nostalgia blends with shoving, trash talk and desperate dives on the floor. At The Basketball Tournament, a 64-team competition with a $2 million prize for the winners, all those elements are in play.
Philadelphia University’s Gallagher Athletic Center hosted the Super 16 Thursday night, including the first contest of the evening between No. 1 seed City of Gods (COG) and No. 5 seed Family Over Everything (FOE), which ended in a 99-83 win for COG.
Many of the teams in the tournament are comprised of alumni from one school or players from a certain region. For FOE, there was a distinct Philly flavor; Scott Rodgers (Drexel ’09), Dionte Christmas (Temple ’09) and Maalik Wayns (Villanova ‘12) all played for Philadelphia schools. Co-coaches Marcus and Markieff Morris, members of the Pistons and Wizards respectively, grew up in Philadelphia and attended Prep Charter. Two of their teammates at Kansas were also on the squad, Tyshaun Taylor and Thomas Robinson (serving as an assistant coach).
City of Gods had a much more diverse mix of players, including 2005 Drexel graduate Phil Goss. The roster included Xavier Silas, who played in two games for the Sixers during the 2011-12 season, DerMarr Johnson, the sixth overall pick in the 2000 NBA draft and Michael Sweetney, the ninth pick in the 2003 draft.
The first of two 18-minute halves started at a high tempo, even though the tournament uses a 30-second shot clock. While Wayns, Taylor and Rodgers had some early success driving to the hole, COG stifled FOE’s offensive rhythm by switching to a trapping zone defense midway through the half. As FOE began to settle for threes, missing most of those attempts, COG got hot from long range. For the game, COG shot 14 of 27 from behind the arc, and FOE shot 9 of 27.
By the end of the half, COG had a 51-40 lead. Despite the occasional sensational floater by Wayns, who scored a team-high 22 points, or 25-foot rainbow jumper by Christmas, COG’s solid fundamentals, disciplined defense and balanced scoring neutralized FOE. Six players scored in double figures for COG, including Goss with 15 points on 4 for 5 shooting from the field. Silas’ 19 points (6 of 8 FG, 3 of 4 from three-point range) led the team.
“The one thing all these guys do is sacrifice their personal game — you look at Phil Goss, he’s so consistent … maybe not flashy, maybe not something where the crowd will jump out and go crazy, but consistent,” said COG coach Joe Connelly III, a former player development coach in the NBA and the older brother of Denver Nuggets GM Tim Connelly.
The Morris twins took their coaching duties very seriously on the other sideline, drawing up plays, calling out-of-bounds sets and constantly lobbying for foul calls to the referees. It was indeed a very physical game, as the teams combined to shoot 68 free throws. If the referees had decided to be more stringent about calling fouls for contact off the ball and during the elbow-heavy exchange for every rebound, there could have been even more.
When the lead stretched to 58-42 midway through the second half, FOE began to play with a stretch of desperation. For a spurt, that was effective, as a hoop by Sean Evans capped a 15-6 run. But with their thin eight-man rotation, FOE wasn't able to sustain that energy. COG continued to spread the ball around and force turnovers as the pro-Philly crowd voiced its frustrations with the referees and the fact that FOE’s tournament run was about to end.
“The first round, FOE had a big following and we knew that was going to be in their favor, but we still believed that we were the better team,” Silas said. “This is what we do. Every game overseas, every game in the NBA, there’s going to be thousands of people yelling at you, so that wasn’t a problem. That wasn’t even a factor.”
“The fans can’t play. They can do all the chanting they want to, but they can’t step on the floor and check up,” Goss said.
If FOE’s tournament hopes weren’t already dead, Goss nailed the dagger three with 3:03 remaining to make it 89-73.
It’s not hard to see why COG is a No. 1 seed. It's a determined, talented squad. In last year’s tournament, the team lost in the semifinals.
“We were pissed off that we lost, and we still feel how we felt after that game,” Silas said. “So we got some unfinished business.”
As COG discussed its approach to the tournament after the win, power forward James Gist and Connelly had an interesting exchange.
“We go with the flow of the game and whoever is getting it done is getting it done,” Connelly said. “You think about some of these teams that are adding ringers, we got a team full of ringers.”
“We got a team full of alphas,” Gist added.
“But they’re all alpha males,” Connelly said, “who have accepted it might not be the James Gist show, or it might not be the Xavier Silas show.
“We look at the stat sheet and then just throw it right in the trash. Because all that matters is win, go on to the next game.”
City of Gods will play The Untouchables, a team of mostly Pitt alumni (see story), in a quarterfinal matchup on Saturday.