On paper, tonight’s NCAA Men’s basketball championship game resembles a David vs. Goliath matchup: a number 4 seed (Michigan) vs. a number 1 seed (Louisville). But things are not as lopsided as you might think they are at first glance. The Michigan Wolverines (31 – 7) are battle-tested, finishing 12-6 in the rugged Big 10, good for fourth in arguably the best conference of the 2012 – 2013 season. The Big 10 Conference was so tough, one could declare Michigan as the fourth best team in their conference, and yet, in the next breath, state they are one of the two best teams in the nation without sounding discombobulated.
The Wolverines also boast several players with NBA fathers (Glenn Robinson, Jr., Tito Horford, and Tim Hardaway). And yet, Glenn Robinson III, Jon Horford, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. are probably not even Michigan’s most impactful players (a strong case could be made for teammates Trey Burke and Mitch McGary).
The Wolverines’ path to the NCAA Finals includes impressive wins over top-seeded Kansas (87-85 in overtime), number 3 seed Florida (79-59), and fourth-seeded Syracuse (61 -56) in the Final Four, all powerhouse programs with national championship banners from previous years. The Wolverines weren’t lucky; they earned their ticket to the Finals.
The Louisville Cardinals are a consensus number 1 seed, and certainly have had their dramatic finishes as well. If the Big 10 could lay claim to being the best conference in the land, the Big East could easily vie for the deepest conference, top to bottom. Remarkably, nine Big East teams won 20 or more games this season.
Louisville’s team is full of players with a flair for finishing above the rim or filling it up from the perimeter. But their vaunted pressure defense is their bread and butter, as it may be the most disruptive in the country. The Cardinals’ road kill on the way to the Finals includes number 12 seed Oregon (77-69), number 2 seed Duke (85-63), and scrappy Wichita State (72-68) in the semifinals. Louisville certainly earned their berth also with their demoralizing, swarming defense.
Despite overwhelming talent, the Wolverines shouldn’t haven’t advanced this far, according to the pundits. Of the 68 teams in the NCAA playoffs, Michigan has the youngest team in the field. Most experts believed next year would be their year. Apparently, the players and coaches believed differently: “the future is now.” While consensus Player of the Year Burke has mostly struggled from the field throughout the playoffs (except for a game-saving brilliant second half against Kansas), his presence and leadership has willed Michigan to victories over equally talented teams.
Hardaway, Jr. and Robinson III have provided aerial theatrics and production on the boards. Nik Stauskas and Spike Albrecht have kept defenses honest behind the 3-point arc, while reserves Horford and Jordan Morgan defended the paint and were workman-like on the boards.
But it is freshman center Mitch McGary who epitomizes head coach John Beilein’s blue-collar approach to winning basketball. McGary can throw his considerable heft around in the paint, but he also hustles down court on defense and hurls his body on the floor to pursue loose balls. And the reason why Michigan is in tonight’s Finals game is because McGary can knock down the mid-range jumper at the elbow, and he can find open teammates in the high-low post game. He even adds a little junk to his game, with his no-look passes to players cutting to the basket.
Louisville is the Goliath who was expected to be here. There were one of the beasts from the Big East, bruised and battered in regulation play, but victorious in convincing fashion at the Big East Tournament. Peyton Siva may have teammates who are more gifted (Russ Smith), are better shooters (Luke Hancock), and bigger (virtually the entire team)–he also plays for one of the few coaches in America who outshines his own players in the flashy Rick Pitino, but one couldn’t find a grittier player in the college game. Siva is everybody’s favorite point guard as a teammate, and an opponent’s worst nightmare.
He can dish, he can shoot, he has handles, he penetrates, he controls the tempo, he runs the offense, he’s tough, and he’s a menace on defense, deflecting any pass within range. If Rick Pitino’s personality is embodied in a player on the court, that player would be Siva.
Louisville is deep, with six players averaging at least 7.6 points per game. However, every player on the court causes havoc on defense. Especially prominent is Gorgui Dieng, who is not only 6’11”, but is all arms and legs. Louisville can afford to be aggressive in overplaying the passing lanes, because they know Dieng is patrolling the paint and can erase any defensive mistakes they over-commit on.
Smith is an undersized scoring machine, who can convert in a variety of ways, as he is too quick for any defenders to handle one-on-one. His scoring outbursts are similar to another former Big East guard now in the NBA, former UConn Player of the Year Kemba Walker.
Hancock can fill it up as soon as he enters the arena, as Wichita State can attest to because he dropped 20 points on the Shockers Saturday. Louisville is so talented that role players such as sophomore Wayne Blackshear could possibly end up being a future NBA prospect.
But the task at hand is to win the NCAA’s, so the Cardinals have set aside personal agendas and worked toward the one remaining team goal that eludes them: the championship ring.
The betting lines in Las Vegas have Louisville as 4-point favorites. With both teams so talented and driven, don’t be surprised if the game ends up being a nail-biter even closer than that. Either way, an epic battle is looming for the nation to enjoy tonight.
Tip off in Atlanta is 9:23 Eastern time. CBS will broadcast the game.