ATLANTA (AP) — Monday night’s NCAA championship pairs up two teams that aren’t exactly mirror images of each other, but they sure aren’t opposites either.
Louisville, which held up its mantle as the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, will take on Michigan, a No. 4 seed that knocked off the likes of Kansas, Florida and Syracuse on its way to the title game.
Both teams rely heavily on their backcourts and one guard in particular. Michigan’s Trey Burke was The Associated Press’ player of the year and though his scoring has been down in the tournament, he still directs the offense. Louisville’s Russ Smith has been dominating the Cardinals’ scoring and is the player who keeps the crowd on the edge of their seats with one “Russdiculous” move after another.
Both teams have impressive frontcourts and though it’s a different style, both rely on their defense to get their offense going.
A look at the teams who will play for the national title, a prize neither school has brought home since the late 1980s.
Michigan comes at you with a young team that feeds off Burke, its leader. If there is a knock on the sophomore it’s his inconsistency from game to game. In the five tournament games he has ranged from six points to 23 and those all came in the second half and overtime in the win over top-seeded Kansas. He has not shot better than 50 percent in any game and was 1 for 8 from the field against Syracuse. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas have kept up the scoring when Burke doesn’t and a big surprise was the solid minutes from freshman Caris LeVert in the semifinal.
Smith and Peyton Siva dominate the minutes for the Cardinals in the backcourt and they are the core of the pressure defense that wears down opponents. They do force turnovers throughout the game but it’s the relentless pressure that changes the way teams play in the final minutes. Wichita State only committed 11 turnovers but the bulk of those came in the final minutes. Smith is averaging 25.0 points in the tournament and he has 15 steals in the five games. Siva has been struggling with his shot — 1 for 12 from 3-point range in the tournament — but he is still averaging 8.6 points and leads the team with 23 assists. Losing Kevin Ware to the broken leg against Duke has taken away a big part of the pressure defense.
Mitch McGary is working his way into Michigan lore with an incredible NCAA tournament. The freshmen forward didn’t crack the starting lineup until the tourney and all he’s done since then is average 16.0 points and 11.6 rebounds while shooting 69.8 percent from the field. Glenn Robinson III is averaging 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds and has taken advantage of all the attention paid to McGary for some easy points, especially on offensive rebounds.
Louisville’s big man in the middle, Gorgui Deing, has to bounce back from a scoreless semifinal and put up numbers like the 8.8 points and 7.2 rebounds he’s averaged in the tournament. He has 12 blocks and seven steals and with his wingspan he’s a big part of the pressure defense. Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear have been augmented up front by freshman Montrezl Harrell, who gave the Cardinals some good minutes against Wichita State.
Michigan’s biggest contribution from its reserves in the tournament has been the outside shooting of Spike Albrecht who has yet to miss in five 3-point attempts. LeVert came through against Syracuse.
Louisville unloaded its bench against Wichita State and with Luke Hancock leading the way, the Cardinals’ reserves scored 34 of the team’s 72 points. Hancock, who had scored in double figures once in the tournament when he has 10 points against Duke, chipped in 20 points on 6-of-9 shooting while Harrell had eight points on 4-for-4 shooting. The surprise of all was Tim Henderson, who had scored six points since Christmas and matched that total on two huge 3-pointers against Wichita State.
John Beilein, who is in his first Final Four, is considered among the top coaches in the country and his teams reflect his demeanor on the sideline, calm and in control.
Rick Pitino is trying to become the first coach to win a national championship at two schools, having won it all with Kentucky in 1996. His team’s style is a lot like his on the sideline, in control on the outside but going at a frenetic pace on the inside.
Michigan’s last two championship game appearances were losses, the second of which ended with Chris Webber calling a timeout the Wolverines didn’t have in a tight game against North Carolina.
Louisville has inspiration sitting on the bench in Ware. Just a week after the country saw his horrific injury in the regional final, he is on crutches and with his teammates in his home state. The picture of Ware and his father hugging after the semifinal win will be shown for years to come.
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