By Brian Otskey, Rush The Court
The National Championship Game: #1 Louisville (34-5) vs. #4 Michigan (31-7) – 9:23 PM ET on CBS. Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr will have the call live from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.
After five months and 5,744 regular season, conference tournament and NCAA tournament games, the college basketball season comes down to one game on one night in Atlanta. Top overall seed Louisville enters the game as the favorite but by no means will this be a walk in the park. The Cardinals are in search of their third national championship this evening and their first since 1986. On the other side, Michigan is looking for its second national title, having won it all once before in 1989. It is somewhat hard to believe given the strength of the two leagues over the years but this is the first national championship game between Big East and Big Ten schools since the aforementioned Wolverines held off Seton Hall in overtime to win it all at the Kingdome in Seattle 24 years ago.
Louisville has now won 15 straight games after surviving a major scare from Wichita State on Saturday night. In fact, the Cardinals have won 18 of their past 19 games since a three game losing streak in January and the one loss was in five overtimes to Notre Dame. This game features the nation’s best defense (Louisville) and the most efficient offensive team in the land (Michigan) going head to head in what should be a terrific basketball game. For the Cardinals to win, they must attack the rim and use their defense to fuel their offense. Rick Pitino’s team is no slouch offensively (#5 in efficiency), but its offense is largely predicated off its ability to create live ball turnovers and score in transition. Louisville is lethal in transition but not great in the half court unless it attacks the basket, either with its guards off the bounce or great athletes like Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan working the baseline and the low block. In Saturday’s national semifinal, Wichita State forced Louisville into way too many jump shots for Pitino’s liking and it almost cost the Cardinals dearly. The Shockers were rattled by a series of turnovers late in the second half and lost the game because of it. Louisville’s ball pressure is the best in the country and it starts with Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. Both play the passing lanes so well but Smith in particular is among the nation’s best defenders. After it scores, Louisville’s full court pressure takes full effect. The big question in this game will be whether the Cardinals (#2 in forcing turnovers) can turn over the Wolverines (#1 in ball protection) enough to fuel their offense. When Michigan played VCU in the round of 32, the Wolverines obliterated Shaka Smart’s “havoc.” There is, however, one major difference between VCU and Louisville. The Rams are not a great defensive team in the half court while Louisville plays the best half court defense of any team in America. Siva has to slow down Trey Burke, who picked up just about every imaginable award this week. Michigan showed just how good of a team it is by winning its semifinal game against Syracuse without its star sophomore point guard being a major factor. While it’s fair to say Michigan has never seen a defense like this all season long, Louisville hasn’t seen an offense with as many weapons as this one. When Michigan has the ball, the battle between the best offense and the best defense could be one of epic proportions.
The Wolverines have caught fire in this tournament due to the spark Mitch McGary has provided in the paint and on the boards. The freshman has been playing out of his mind from the moment the tournament began but will face his toughest test on the biggest stage tonight. Gorgui Dieng has the potential to render McGary ineffective, although Dieng did not play well at all against Wichita State 48 hours ago. Nevertheless, Dieng is the best low post defender McGary and Michigan have seen all year. One of the best individual match-ups in this game will be Tim Hardaway Jr. going against Luke Hancock. Both players are the so-called “X-factors” for their respective teams and whoever gets the better of this battle could determine the outcome of the game. Both stand 6’6” tall but Hardaway is a sure-fire pro with better athleticism. Hancock has improved his defense considerably this season but came to Louisville with a reputation as only an offensive threat. Hancock’s experience and ability to perform in pressure situations has deservedly earned him the “cool-hand Luke” nickname and Louisville will need more of that in order to hoist the championship trophy later tonight. Hardaway needs to make jump shots but he also needs to keep the defense honest by showing off the rest of his offensive repertoire. Putting the ball on the floor would not be a bad idea for the Michigan junior. At the two guard position, Nik Stauskas has a height and length advantage over Smith, something that should allow the 6’6” Canadian sharpshooter to get his shot off easier than he could against the length of Syracuse on Saturday. Stauskas is almost unstoppable when he is hot but, as most freshmen are, he is prone to cold streaks as we saw against the Orange. For Smith, he needs to use his quickness to his advantage in order to make up for the length disparity. Despite a good, not great, efficiency rating of 32, defense has not been a concern for Michigan in this tournament. That may change tonight because it’s almost a guarantee that Louisville will guard hard for 40 minutes. Michigan has to cut off penetration and make Louisville a jump shooting team by taking a page out of Wichita State’s playbook. Smith is a master at getting to the free throw line (7 attempts per game) but the Wolverines are the top team in the country at keeping opponents off the charity stripe thanks to a defensive free throw rate of just 22.2%. Keeping Smith off the free throw line is paramount because he’s an 81% shooter (despite Saturday’s 5-12 performance). You have to wonder if John Beilein breaks out his trusty old 1-3-1 zone defense just in time for this game. It would be foolish to assume Pitino isn’t expecting it at some point but the real question is whether or not his players will be able to execute against it. The 1-3-1 is great at forcing teams to shoot jumpers but the corners are often open, a place where Hancock is likely to be hanging out if Louisville executes properly.
This has all the makings of a classic national championship game. Michigan is here for the first time since the infamous Chris Webber timeout game against North Carolina in 1993 while the Cardinals are making their first national title game appearance since Denny Crum led them to the 1986 title. Pitino and Beilein have met on four previous occasions with Pitino holding a 3-1 edge. However, as we saw on Saturday, that doesn’t mean much. Beilein was winless in nine tries against Jim Boeheim before knocking off Syracuse two nights ago. All of the last three meetings between teams coached by these two men have been fantastic basketball games. Louisville defeated Beilein’s West Virginia team in the 2005 Elite Eight, an overtime classic at the Pit in Albuquerque. Beilein got the best of Pitino a year later in Morgantown for his only win and the teams played yet another classic in 2007, a double overtime win by Louisville in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals. The match-up between the two hottest teams in the tournament, the nation’s best offense versus the nation’s best defense and two outstanding basketball minds on the sidelines tells us this should be one for the books. Will Michigan’s youth, inexperience and non-elite defense finally catch up to it or will the Wolverine offense power them to another win and a title as it has throughout this tournament? The old saying goes, “defense wins championships,” and Louisville gets the slightest of edges because of that in what should be a classic championship battle.
The RTC Certified Pick: Louisville, 67-65.
Brian Otskey is an RTC Contributor and filed this preview of tonight’s game for all the marbles. Follow him on Twitter @botskey.