And then there were two. Louisville and Michigan will battle tonight in Atlanta with the 2013 national championship on the line. In a year with no dominant team in college basketball, a year with great parody across the country, and a year with some incredible upsets in the NCAA Tournament, it’s quite fitting that these are the two teams that have survived and will play for the national championship.
Both Louisville and Michigan were top-5 teams in the preseason poll, both were ranked number one in the country at some point this season, and both played like a team that deserves a chance at the national championship, not just in their last five games during the NCAA Tournament, but throughout the entire season.
That being said, both should feel just a little bit lucky to have survived Saturday’s national semi-finals and make it to tonight’s final game. Louisville was forced to overcome a 12-point second half deficit, which wasn’t easy considering the amount of foul trouble they were in and the fact that Wichita State followed their blueprint for upsetting Louisville almost to perfection for much of the game. If not for some key contributions from unexpected sources and forcing some timely turnovers, the Cardinals may not have survived. As for Michigan, they had to survive some foul-shooting woes in the final minutes of their game against Syracuse, as well as an offense that was not nearly as effective in the second half as it was in the first half. If not for a pair of 30-foot jump shots that went in during the first half and a couple questionable decisions by the officials late in the game that went Michigan’s way, the Wolverine’s may not have been able to hold on to the lead that they nearly squandered down the stretch.
Nevertheless, both Louisville and Michigan have made the final game, and there should be no reason to complain, as this is an intriguing matchup that should make for an entertaining championship game. Much like Michigan’s game against Syracuse, this game will features a great matchup of strength vs. strength. Louisville is at its best when they are pressing, forcing turnovers, and getting easy points in transition; meanwhile, Michigan is at its best when they are moving fast, getting up and down the court, and allowing point guard Trey Burke to make plays on the fly. Michigan faced VCU’s “Havoc” defense in the second round of the tournament and not only did they not have any problems facing it, but they thrived against it.
Conversely, for long stretches in Saturday’s semi-final, Louisville’s pressure defense was ineffective against Wichita State, although part of the blame goes to their inability to score consistently and set up their press. Michigan is well equipped to handle Louisville’s pressure and even take advantage of an over-aggressive defense, but the Cardinals do tend to wear teams down with their pressure over the course of 40 minutes. Whichever team can create more easy baskets out of Louisville’s press will have a decisive advantage in the championship game.
But don’t expect Louisville to press the entire game. No one in college basketball is better at changing defenses from possession to possession than Rick Pitino, so expect him to switch seamlessly from a full-court press, to man-to-man, to a matchup zone, with different variations of each. How Michigan can adjust to different types of defenses will be critical to the outcome of the game, as they must stay aggressive offensively, no matter what kind of defense Louisville throws at them. If the Wolverines can stay aggressive and attack the basket, it could be tough for the Cardinals to keep pace with them, but if Louisville is able to force turnovers or take Michigan out of its offensive rhythm, the advantage will go to the Cardinals.
On the other end of the floor, Louisville must be as efficient as possible in their half court offense, especially if they’re not getting points in transition. Against Wichita State, the Cardinals went long stretches of time without a field goal, which didn’t cost them against a mediocre offensive team, but it will cost them against a team as good as Michigan is on offense.
As for the Wolverines, they did a great job of guarding Syracuse sharpshooter James Southerland on Saturday night, and they’ll look to do the same against Luke Hancock tonight. Hancock was instrumental to Louisville’s success against Wichita State, but if Michigan can limit him the way they limited Southerland, the Cardinals will be far less of a threat from the perimeter. The other key player to watch for Louisville is Peyton Siva, who should be matched up against Burke. The two are near equal in size and quickness, so it should be an intriguing one-on-one matchup. If Burke can keep Siva out of the lane he won’t be much of a factor, as he’s a well below average perimeter shooter.
The wildcard is Russ Smith, who can be streaky, and who Michigan will likely defend with several different players in an effort to keep him off balance. If all else fails, the Cardinals will lean on Smith to make plays for them, which can lead in any number of directions, as Smith is an unpredictable player who is capable of both great feats and great disappointments. Michigan has proven in their last two games against Syracuse and Florida that they’re better defensively than they get credit for, and they’re certainly capable of containing Louisville’s half-court offense, which keeps the Cardinals from setting up their defense, a facet of the game that can’t be overlooked.
The beauty of this championship game matchup is that it’s so difficult to predict. We know that they key aspects of the game will be whether or not Michigan will be helped or hurt by Louisville’s pressure defense, as well as Louisville’s ability to score in the half court in order to set up their press; but knowing what will be important and knowing how things will unfold are two different things. This game will feature an endless parade of talented players, especially guards, who will be the dominating figures throughout the game. This game has too many variables to predict a winner ahead of time, but one thing we know for sure is that whichever team is left standing at the end of the night will be the national champion, and they’ll have earned it.