Which team will earn the right to unfurl a 2013 championship banner?
#1 Louisville (34-5, 14-4 Big East) vs. #4 Michigan (31-7, 12-6 Big Ten)
What a treat for college basketball fans as this year’s championship game pits the top defense against the top offense in the country. While it’s always fun to see the Florida Gulf Coasts and Wichita States of the world make a run in the tournament, eventually the cream rises to the top and these two premier programs will do battle in the final. Each squad spent a week ranked #1 in the country during the middle of the season and has been among the top teams all season long. However, the two teams have taken slightly different paths to get here.
Louisville started off the season 16-1 with their lone loss coming in a five-point defeat to Duke. They then a their biggest rough patch of the season, losing three straight to eventual tournament teams Syracuse, Villanova, and Georgetown. However, the Cardinals then ripped off another nice streak, going 13-1 entering the NCAA tournament including a Big East tournament championship, with the sole defeat an epic five-overtime loss at Notre Dame. In the tournament, Louisville was never tested until Saturday when the upstart Wichita State Shockers jumped out to a double digit lead in the second half. The Cardinals’ vaunted full court press eventually got them back into the game for an exciting finish an a 72-68 victory.
On the other hand, Michigan struggled toward the end of the season and had no momentum coming into the NCAA tournament. After starting the season 20-1 with the one loss being a three-point defeat at Ohio State, the Wolverines went just 6-6 over its last 12 games entering the tournament, including a loss to lowly Penn State. Michigan has suddenly found its stride in the tournament, cruising to victories excluding a tough overtime victory against Kansas that required some incredible late-game heroics from star point guard and the Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year Trey Burke.
Despite Burke’s play, the biggest reason for the Wolverines’ tournament run has been the emergence of freshman Mitch McGary. Over the course of this tournament, McGary has gone from bench player to starter to now being talked about as a first round NBA draft pick if he declares himself eligible. McGary has jumped from season averages of 7.5 points and 6.3 rebounds to 16.0 points and 11.6 rebounds in the tournament, providing an interior component to an offense with a handful of good outside shooters. He has shown an excellent offensive skill set operating from the high post, setting screens and rolling to the rim. Those skills will translate extremely well in today’s pick-and-roll NBA.
Aside from his late-game efforts against Kansas, Burke has struggled in the tournament, averaging just 13.8 ppg (down from his 18.5 season mark) on 32.4% shooting, including 25.8% from behind the arc. He has continued to do a good job distributing, averaging 7.0 assists per game. Still, Burke will be the most important player for the Wolverines tonight as he will carry much of the burden in breaking the Cardinals’ full court pressure. Without a performance representative of a player of the year, Michigan’s run will certainly end in defeat.
Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, and Glenn Robinson III are the other offensive threats for the Wolverines. Stauskas is the best pure shooter, hitting 43.9% of his threes this season, but is mainly a catch-and-shoot player. Hardaway Jr. and Robinson III are also capable of hitting the three ball, but also need to be accounted for as options to penetrate the lane.
Russ Smith has been a dominant scoring force in the tournament, averaging 25.0 ppg on 50.0% shooting. The scoring is nothing new for Smith, who has averaged 18.9 ppg on the season, but the efficiency is, as his usual 42.1% shooting labelled him as more of a gunner than an elite scorer. Smith is surrounded by a bevy of secondary options, whether it’s Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan on the inside, or Peyton Siva, Luke Hancock, and Wayne Blackshear on the perimeter. Different players step up for the Cardinals on any given night, as evidenced by the 20-point effort from Hancock to guide Louisville to its comeback over Wichita State.
The Cardinals’ true strength is their elite defense. Louisville uses its pressure to force the second-most turnovers in the country, with Peyton Siva and Russ Smith both top-45 in the country in steals. Of course, none of it would be possible without Big East Defensive Player of the Year Gorgui Dieng anchoring the back line. Dieng is 23rd in the country averaging 2.52 blocks per game, and NBA scouts drool over his potential as a defensive game-changer.
This game shapes up to be an instant classic between two elite teams and programs, but in the end, Louisville should bring home the trophy. The Cardinals feature a deeper array of scoring options, making it more difficult for the Wolverines to shut down every avenue of attack. While Michigan has plenty of nice pieces on offense, that side of the ball can be a hit or miss proposition. However, a staunch defense will always be there for you and Louisville will ride their defense to a championship.