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GOULD: Catching fire at proper time is key to berths in Final Four

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim talks his players during timeout first half East Regional final NCAA men's college basketball tournament

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim talks to his players during a timeout in the first half of the East Regional final in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament against Marquette, Saturday, March 30, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally)

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The Final Four

At the Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Ch. 2, 670-AM


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

◆ Michigan (30-7) vs.
Syracuse (30-9), 7:49 p.m.


◆ Semifinal winners, 8 p.m.

Updated: April 3, 2013 10:18PM

Final Fours are about similarities and differences, redemption and achievement. And this one is chocked full.

Three of these teams did not win their league or their conference tournament. While Louisville won both, the trio of Michigan, Syracuse and Wichita State is proof that the NCAA tournament is a separate, electrifying mini-season unto itself.

After being considered the best league in the country all season, the Big Ten ended up with one team in Atlanta, while the Big East wound up with two.

The NCAA tournament “doesn’t prove you’ve got the best league,’’ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “It just means you played the best during this couple‑week period.’’

Boeheim is the most common denominator in this quartet. Louisville coach Rick Pitino is a former Syracuse assistant, and won his only national championship with Kentucky in 1996 vs. Boeheim in the title game. A long-time friend of John Beilein, Boeheim also helped the well-traveled Michigan coach get hired at Canisius and West Virginia.

At first glance, the achievement of Wichita State in reaching college basketball’s biggest stage might rank as the biggest achievement. But Michigan, which needed an epic comeback vs. Kansas, made a giant leap for the Big Ten as well as its own program.

Strangely, while the Fab Five descended on Ann Arbor with a whirlwind and went to back-to-back Final Fours, this trip back after a 20-year drought was more of a steady climb.

“It was survival for three or four years,’’ Beilein said. “ ‘Let’s get into the NCAA tournament. We haven’t been in there forever, let alone worry about getting into the Final Four.’ After you start to get there, it’s not enough. You have to win and advance.’’

The Wolverines’ first Final Four since 1993 spares the Big Ten — which had four teams in the Sweet 16 and two in the Elite Eight — a lot of chatter about being overrated, which would be warranted in some ways and harsh in others.

Wisconsin, which misfired in the first round against Ole Miss, ranks as the biggest flop. Indiana, which couldn’t deal with Syracuse’s zone in the Sweet 16, exited with the most unfinished business. Michigan State simply didn’t have enough to get past Duke. And Ohio State caught a Wichita State team that was on a roll.

For the Shockers, March Madness began long before March. When they endured their third loss in a row, 64-62 at Southern Illinois on Feb. 5, coach Gregg Marshall wondered if they also had lost their chance for an at-large NCAA bid. With Creighton atop the Missouri Valley, that was a big safety valve.

“Your margin for error is so small,’’ Marshall said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, boy, we may have just shot our chances to get in the NCAA tournament right in the foot. We might have just blown it.’ I’m thinking that to myself, obviously not relaying that to the team. ‘’

But the ninth-seeded Shockers persevered. In the end, that might have helped them deliver a knockout punch to Ohio State, which seemed to have all the ingredients to reach its second straight Final Four.

“This team has done better when nothing has been expected,’’ Marshall said, “when they’re the underdogs, which we’ll clearly be [vs. Louisville] on Saturday, I just think that’s when we’re at our best.’’

Pitino, who made the first of his seven Final Four appearances with sixth-seeded Providence in 1987, is familiar with the underdog role.

“There are four teams in this Final Four playing terrific basketball,’’ Pitino said. “You never expect it. When it does happen, you feel really blessed that you’re getting there.’’

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