Generally speaking, Wichita State is the champion of the tourney's weakest region. The West featured the worst No. 1 seed (Gonzaga), seed Nos. 3-5 lost in their opening games and four double-digit seeds made it into the Round of 32. It sure opened up nicely for coach Gregg Marshall's underdog roster — after all, LaSalle stood between the Shockers and the Elite Eight last weekend.
However, it should be noted that the Missouri Valley Conference runners-up won in convincing fashion every step of the way. Were it not for No. 2 seed Ohio State's furious comeback in that Elite Eight match-up, Wichita State would have cruised into Atlanta with similar ease as Louisville and Syracuse.
The Shockers' average margin of victory in the tournament is 10.5 points per game.
The Big East tournament champion Louisville Cardinals are not Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, LaSalle or Ohio State, though. They are much, much better. Even without athletic guard Kevin Ware, who gruesomely broke his leg in Louisville's win over Duke, the Cardinals feature an explosive, high-scoring backcourt (Russ Smith, Peyton Siva) and the top-rated defense in the country. Oh, and for the record, the Cardinals also rank fifth nationally in offensive efficiency. There are various reasons as to why coach Rick Pitino is leading the No. 1 overall seed on a rampage through this tournament.
Wichita State does not grade so highly in the statistical community, ranked 33rd in offensive efficiency; 23rd defensively.
That did not cause Pitino to shy away from lobbing praise in the Shockers' direction.
"I'll say this without any exaggeration: They're the best team we will have faced this year at the defensive end," Pitino said. "They are Marquette on steroids in terms of the way they play defense. If you grab an offensive rebound, they slap it away. They don't let you go into the paint without four guys attacking you. They are the toughest team to score against.
"They haven't just beaten Pittsburgh, like we did, by three points — they beat Pittsburgh by 25 points. They're up 20 against Ohio State. They pound Gonzaga. They pound LaSalle. They're not just winning, they're pounding teams."
That doesn't sound like a group of players in over its collective head. And yet here we are, primed to watch the tourney's de facto "Cinderella" against the most dominant team the 2012-13 campaign could have hoped to produce.
Can Gregg Marshall's team refrain from turning the ball over?
Only Shaka Smart's famed Havoc defense at VCU forces more turnovers per game then Pitino's high-pressure, full-court defense. The Cardinals are forcing 18.7 opponent miscues per game — not to mention the offense-killing deflections, a particular favorite of the Louisville coaching staff.
Overall, opponents cough up the ball on more than a quarter of their possessions against the Cardinals.
As Marshall referenced in his Final Four press conference Thursday, it will take a complete team effort to not only break the pressure for easy baskets, but for the Shockers to consistently run their offense after getting across half court.
"We can't play with five guards, because then you're not going to be able to get a rebound," Marshall said. "We're going to need all the available hands on deck to take care of the basketball, be strong with it, organize and attack Louisville's pressure in an intelligent and sound way."
That's easier said than executed, but the brunt of the task will fall to guards Malcolm Armstead and Fred Van Vleet. For a capable duo that has shown a propensity for penetrating defenses, ball security will be in high demand. If they can not keep Marshall's offense under control — not to mention getting the ball to forwards Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall in scoring position — this could quickly turn into a blowout. Good luck convincing Pitino of that, though.
"I think Malcolm Armstead is one of the best guards in the country. I think Russ Smith is one of the best guards in the country," Pitino said. "Trey Burke. Michael Carter‑Williams. The reason we're all here is we have great guards."
Wichita State ranks 198th nationally in turnovers per game (19.5), and it has yet to face Pitino's pressure. That's not a recipe for success. Let's hope, for Wichita State's sake, it enters Saturday with a full-proof formula.
"We need as many ball handlers as we can," Marshall said.
Will Wichita State continue to dominate the glass?
Only five teams have out-rebounded the Shockers this season — only Gonzaga has accomplished the feat in the Big Dance.
Wichita State, a team featuring the type of athleticism rare in mid-major teams, does not expect to give up much on the glass to Louisville. After all, the Shockers were the 12th-best team nationally in terms of defensive rebounding percentage (73.7). They've largely controlled the offensive boards, too.
In a match-up where dictating the pace is crucial, the Shockers can ill afford to give up second- or third-chance scoring opportunities to the Cardinals. That has been the foundation of their entire run to Atlanta. (Well, that and Marshall's intense pregame and halftime speeches.)
On paper, Louisville is the better team across the board, Wichita State needs to hang its hat on something if it is to pull the historic upset here. The Shockers took it to Pitt and Ohio State on the boards, so that's as good of a place to start as any.
Get out the Windex.
Will the extra attention prevent the Shockers from living up to their nickname?
Playing for a big-time program like Louisville or Syracuse or Michigan comes with its share of media responsibilities, so much so that it likely becomes second nature for Trey Burke, Russ Smith, etc. Not so for Wichita State's players. This is all new: the limelight, the media attention and scrutiny, the Cinderella label, the huge arenas, the distractions. It has not affected them so far, but could the Final Four be different?
Of the four teams remaining, only Louisville boasts Final Four experience — a loss to Kentucky in last year's Dance. This is a big stage for everyone involved.
"If I have to make that trade to do constant media attention, national radio, TV to get to this point every year, I'll make that trade," Marshall said. "It is grueling. It's different. But that's part of the job. … I hope the applications are rising in Wichita State University and the interest in our great university is just exploding."
Win two more games and you'll get a banner and (likely) a statue to go along with it, Coach.