But fueled by emotion after teammate Kevin Ware gruesomely broke his leg, the Cardinals (33-5) beat Duke by 22 points, the second-most lopsided loss of the season for coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team.
The Michigan-Syracuse semifinal features two power-conference teams that finished in the upper half of their leagues, but stayed under the radar through conference tournament time.
The Orangemen (30-9) headed into the season having lost four players from a team that was seeded first last year but came up a win short of the Final Four.
They headed into the postseason losing four of five and coach Jim Boeheim was talking more about playing golf than coaching in April.
Sparked by Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense, they started playing better when they headed to New York for the Big East tournament. Led by Michael Carter-Williams, they’ve won seven of eight (their only loss was to Louisville in the Big East final) and are back in the Final Four for the first time since Carmelo Anthony brought the championship home in 2003.
“It’s difficult when you lose four out of five games,” Boeheim said of a streak that knocked Syracuse to the middle of the pack in the Big East and affected their NCAA seeding, as well. “But people go through that. Duke lost three games in a row this year. Kansas did. Michigan had a bad stretch. I think most teams have a bad stretch sometime during the course of the year, particularly if you play four games against three teams in the top 15 in the country.”
Michigan’s lull came in early February, when it lost three of four shortly after reaching No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time since 1992 — the days of the Fab Five.
Its current four-game winning streak is the first of more than two games since early in the Big Ten season. So, while the No. 4 seed may make sense for the Wolverines (30-7), it may not account for the difference maker they have in All-American Trey Burke. Burke has averaged 18.6 points in the last three games of the tournament, and made a critical long 3-pointer in an unlikely comeback victory over Kansas in the regional semifinals.