Despite the wild ride of the Final Four, the national championship game feels like a heavyweight bout.
On Saturday, Louisville walk-on Tim Henderson and Michigan’s little-used freshman Caris LeVert combined for 14 points. In a national semifinal.
Call it a hunch, but we expect the national title to be decided by more familiar names.
The title game may have those kinds of surprises, but the championship game will be a fitting time for the best to be at their best. Louisville and Michigan bring us powerhouse programs, All-America-caliber guards, a breakout freshman and a pair of the most accomplished coaches in the game.
On one bench, Rick Pitino is looking to become the first coach to win a basketball title at two schools. On the other, John Beilein is seeking to reach the top of a mountain he’s been climbing for nearly four decades. While Pitino coached at Providence and Kentucky and then the NBA, Beilein has taken a rare path where he’s never been an assistant coach, progressing from high school to junior college to NAIA to Division II and now to the brink of a national championship.
On the court, Russ Smith and Trey Burke have been two of the most prolific guards in the country, though stealing the show has been freshman Mitch McGary, who has turned a pedestrian regular season into a postseason run that could make him an NBA lottery pick.
And yet for all the success for both programs, they’re looking to add to their basketball trophy case for the first time since the 1980s. Louisville is seeking its first title since 1986 while Michigan is seeking its first title since 1989.
Related: Amazing Stats from the semifinals
No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 4 Michigan
Louisville projected starters
Michigan projected starters
Louisville will win the national title if…
Someone other than Russ Smith is scoring big. Smith is averaging 25 points per game in the tournament, but how Michigan defends the Louisville guard and his supporting cast will be intriguing. The Wolverines have been able to frustrate Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams, Florida’s Erik Murphy and South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters. If Michigan is able to contain Smith -- something no one else in this tournament has been able to do -- the Cardinals need secondary scoring from Peyton Siva, Luke Hancock or Gorgui Dieng.
Michigan will win the national title if…
The Wolverines withstand Louisville’s big run. The Cardinals seem to do it in every game. They find a time when everything is clicking on both ends of the floor -- they’re forcing turnovers, Russ Smith is hitting shots, the rest of the team his hitting three-pointers. Louisville can go on a 10-0 run in a hurry. It’s going to happen against Michigan, the question is if a team starting three freshmen can respond.
Related: Ranking the top 15 players in the Final Four
FIVE BIG STORYLINES
Strength vs. strength
A major topic for this game is going to be the offense vs. defense showdown with Michigan leading Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive rankings and Louisville leading the adjusted defensive rankings. Let’s pause for a minute to remember Louisville can score enough to keep up with Michigan (thanks, in part, to defense creating scoring opportunities). The Cardinals are shooting 53 percent in the tournament and have averaged 79 points per game. The strength vs. strength matchup could just as well be in the offensive end of the court for both teams.
Who blinks in the turnover battle?
The Michigan offense vs. Louisville defense storyline really comes down to the turnover margin. The Wolverines turn the ball over on 14.2 percent of their possessions, the best rate in the country this season. The Cardinals force turnovers on 26.7 percent of possessions, the second-best rate in the country. And who is first in that category? VCU, a team Michigan defeated 78-53 in the round of 32. It’s worth noting that Louisville has forced fewer turnovers in each round of the tournament from North Carolina A&T (27), Colorado State (20), Oregon and Duke (12 each) and Wichita State (11).
Mitch McGary’s emergence
If Michigan wins the championship, McGary would be the leading candidate to be the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Who wins the tourney’s MVP award? Guys like Anthony Davis, Kemba Walker, Emeka Okafor and Carmelo Anthony in the last 10 years. Seriously, look at the list, and keep in mind McGary wasn’t even on the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team.
The Louisville bench
With 34 combined points, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Tim Henderson surged in the second half to help the Cardinals pull away from Wichita State on Saturday. Do they have another game like that in them? Recent games say yes. The Louisville bench has contributed at least 20 point sin six consecutive games going back to 41 points from reserves against Syracuse in the Big East final.
Will Trey Burke bounce back?
Trey Burke scored 23 points in the second half and overtime against Kansas in the Sweet 16, but he’s scored only 46 points in the other four and a half tournament games. His four assists against Syracuse was his fewest since March 14. Michigan has proven to be more than its National Player of the Year candidate, but it’s tough to see the Wolverines winning a title without Burke playing a bigger role.
Related: How the Final Four teams were built
ATHLON SPORTS STAFF ROUNDTABLE
Who is the key player for the game?
David Fox: Gorgui Dieng
Michigan is vulnerable in the paint, though less so with the breakout play of Mitch McGary. In any event, Louisville needs more out of its center than what it got Saturday against Wichita State. Dieng attempted one shot from the floor and had one rebound against the Shockers. Granted, Wichita State had a physical front line, and Rick Pitino said Dieng was tentative in blocking shots due to the shortened bench. Dieng should have a more beneficial matchup against Michigan.
Prediction: Louisville 74-71
Braden Gall: Gorgui Dieng
The best defensive team in the nation faces the best offensive team in the nation and the most important player might be the best post defender in the game. Gorgui Dieng was limited by foul issues against Wichita State and Wolverines freshman post man Mitch McGary continues to be downright obnoxious for opposing defenses. McGary has been unreal in all phases of the game this tournament and will be a tough match-up for Dieng in terms of foot speed and quickness. If Dieng can play under control, stay out of foul trouble and neutralize the paint, the veteran Cardinals team and coaching staff will win the day.
Prediction: Louisville 78-72
Mitch Light: Tim Hardaway Jr.
The Wolverines will obviously need to shoot the ball well to beat Louisville. After hitting a combined 8 of 12 from three-point range in Michigan’s first two NCAA games, Hardaway is only 5 of 18 from the arc in the last three. He will have to be more productive on Monday night. And he will need to help Trey Burke and the rest of the guards handle Louisville’s pressure. He won’t be a primary ball-handler, but he must contribute.
Prediction: Michigan 77-73
Mark Ross: Luke Hancock
A co-captain alongside senior guard Peyton Siva, Hancock has been one of the leaders of this Louisville team all season. And while Siva and junior Russ Smith get the majority of the minutes and attention out of the Cardinals' backcourt, don't overlook or downplay Hancock's presence and contributions. The junior swingman was instrumental in Saturday's win over Wichita State, scoring 20 points off of the benc. He hit three of his five attempts from beyond the arc and, more importantly, was five of seven from the free-throw line. Hancock also chipped in 10 points against Duke in the Midwest Regional final and his scoring off of the bench could be a huge factor on Monday night against Michigan. Also, at 6-6, Hancock has enough size to be able to help out on the perimeter against the likes of Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Nik Stauskas or on the wing if he gets matched up against Glenn Robinson III.
Prediction: Louisville 77-66