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ATLANTA (RNN) – One is a tournament favorite and the top overall seed. Another few thought would be there. A third got to this point on the strength of its offense. The other made its mark with defense.
All four took different paths lined with varying expectations through the field of 68 NCAA tournament teams. Now, the ones left standing have the same mindset entering Saturday's contests: Nothing less than the national championship.
In the night's opening game, Wichita State continues its unexpected run against the tournament's top-rated team, the Louisville Cardinals. The Shockers have dominated opponents with physical defense and rebounding nearly every minute since their opening game.
Senior Malcolm Armstead spoke of his respect for the Cardinals' high-intensity, full-court defense they face.
"They are good at what they do," he said Friday. "They have one of the best coaches in the country in Rick Pitino. You know he's a great coach; he's going to have them prepared well for the game.
"But you know pressure busts pipes, but it also makes diamonds at the same time."
Wichita St. Shockers (9) vs. Louisville Cardinals (1), 6:09 p.m. ET Saturday
Syracuse Orange (4) vs. Michigan Wolverines (4), 8:49 p.m. Saturday
Wichita State is seen as the party crasher of the Final Four, as the only team from a conference outside the "Big 6." If they win the championship, they would be the lowest seed to do so in the tournament's history.
Senior Carl Hall said their coach, Gregg Marshall, has kept them from celebrating each win. Instead, they keep their sights on the upcoming adversary.
"We're trying to move on to the next game," Hall said. "We're not satisfied until we win the championship, so that's been everyone's focus. I've been telling my teammates to stay focused and to just enjoy this and take advantage of this opportunity."
Kevin Ware's injury was a dark moment in an otherwise enlightened journey through the tournament for Louisville so far. But with the sophomore guard expected to make a full recovery from his compound fracture, and with him on the sidelines for the game, the team has the chance to rally around him and "rise to the occasion."
Junior Luke Hancock talked Friday about being by his teammate's side following the gruesome incident, and the bond between them.
"We're brothers for life," Hancock said. "I have that guy's back in any situation. I know he has mine. You know, I don't really know why I went out there, but you know I just didn't want him to be alone out there. Definitely we're close now, and we were close before. It's definitely brought the team together, though.
Following the first half when Ware went down, the shorthanded Cardinals outscored Duke 50-31 in the second to win in assertive fashion to make it to the Georgia Dome.
The team is largely intact from the one that made a somewhat surprising run to the Final Four in 2012 as a No. 4 seed. Guard Peyton Siva said they remained hungry this season, still playing with an edge.
"Our whole mindset was that we had to stay together, we had to play with that chip and that we believe in each other, no matter what anybody else says," he said. "Come together as a team and win. Just like last year, we're trying to win this year. That's pretty much it."
The Syracuse Orange (30-9) players appear confident in their ability to stifle the competition. It's a well deserved feeling – it became the first team in the shot clock era to hold three of its tournament opponents to 50 points or fewer.
"We do a great job of making people take tough shots," forward James Southerland said. "I know Michigan is a young team, we're a little older, so we're going to definitely try and play a little smarter.
"I feel if we go out there and stop them early, make them take tough shots and limit them from second-chance opportunities, we'll be fine."
Coach Jim Boeheim's crew has superior length against nearly any other team and uses it to prevent passing lanes from opening. It will be that way again facing the Wolverines, in particular with Orange point guard Michael Carter-Williams (6'6") head-to-head with Michigan's Trey Burke (6'0").
"I think [I can post him up]," Carter-Williams said. "I can try to take him to the basket and get on the block a little bit. I'm a lot taller than he is."
Burke has been the center of attention in the week leading up to the semifinals. The sophomore won the Associated Press, John Wooden and Oscar Robertson player of the year awards after Michigan averaged nearly 79 points a game through its four tourney contests.
"[The awards are] great accomplishments, but my teammates and coaching staff, they put me in this position," he said. "I wouldn't have been able to win those awards without them. I wouldn't even be in that talk."
During practice Friday, the Wolverines took shots as staff held up pads to block their view, preparing for the long Syracuse arms that will be contesting them. But Burke and teammate Tim Hardaway Jr. agreed they couldn't settle for outside attempts all night.
"I think you just have to be patient with it," Hardaway said. "You can't rush anything, and you can't match their length when you are practicing against your scout team. Take great team shots and don't pass good looks for better looks because you might not get those."
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