The entire season comes down to tonight.
After a dud of a Sweet 16 and Elite 8 weekend, we were treated to two really good Final Four games on Saturday night. It wasn’t the prettiest basketball being played, but the talent level was fairly equal across the board; making both games exciting right to the final horn.
Louisville sputtered early and was facing a 12 point deficit in the second half, but some timely shooting from Tim Henderson, who is only getting playing time because Kevin Ware is out, sparked the Cardinals for a big run. The ball started to go through the basket on a consistent basis and it allowed Louisville to setup up their daunting full-court press. Wichita St. battled until the end, but the Cardinals were not going to let it get away from them in the national semi-finals for the second year in a row.
Michigan wasn’t great on offense, but they were good on defense. Who would have thought three or four weeks ago this team would be going to the national championship based on their defensive play. It helped that they played against a team (Syracuse) that struggles to put the ball through the hoop, but they got out to a lead and were able to maintain it till the final buzzer sounded.
Why Michigan will win:
The Wolverines defense has been extremely effective throughout the entire NCAA tournament and Louisville’s offense disappears from time to time. If it wasn’t for the monster second half from Luke Hancock against Wichita St., Michigan might be playing against the Shockers tonight. So if they can replicate the defensive effort they brought to the Florida and Syracuse games they could really rattle the Cardinals and make it difficult for them to score; very much like Wichita St. did in the first half of their Final Four game.
Also, if Michigan is going to win the national championship, it will be due to Trey Burke’s ability to handle Louisville’s defensive pressure. He did a more than adequate job against VCU in the round of 32, and he is going to have to do the same thing against the Cardinals, the best defense in the country. The game turned for Wichita St. in the Final Four when they began to turn the ball over, but they didn’t have a ball-handler nearly as good as Burke, the national player of the year. He was relatively quiet against Syracuse, but he only turned the ball over once. If he is able to handle Louisville’s full-court press, there should be plenty of looks for Mitch McGary in transition, and wide open corner 3s for Nik Stauskas and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Why Louisville will win:
The Cardinals formula for success is simple and it’s the one they used to beat Wichita St. – pressure defense. They are the best defensive team in the country and they force the second most turnovers in the country (27.5%). Once the Shockers started to succumb to the pressure in the second half, it was all downhill.
However, in order for Louisville to effectively bring the pressure on defense, they have to be scoring on offense. It’s pretty simple: if they aren’t making shots they aren’t able to set up the full-court press. This is the problem they ran into in the first half against Wichita St. and that’s why they were losing at halftime. They also didn’t shoot the ball well coming out of the halftime break either, and their deficit grew to 12. But when Tim Henderson hit back-to-back 3s everything changed. Not only did they get some confidence by seeing the ball go through the net, but they got all the momentum. They were able to set up their press on a consistent basis and started to force turnovers. The Shockers hung tough, but couldn’t make enough plays to pull the upset.
Peyton Siva plays a huge role in how well the offense operates. And it’s not the scoring the team needs from him, it’s his playmaking ability they depend on. Foul trouble has been a problem for him this season, and when he’s relegated to the bench the offense sputters. Russ Smith struggles in the point guard role, and with Kevin Ware out, there is little depth. This is even more important when going against a great defensive point guard like Trey Burke. Siva, a senior, is a great facilitator and it is essential that he is on the court for Louisville. It allows Smith to play off the ball freely, for Gorgui Dieng to dominate the post, and for Hancock to get open for spot up 3s.
The Cardinals are a team on a mission to finish the job from last year. They are the best defensive team in the country and they aren’t weak at a single position with their starting five. With that said, Michigan is an excellent offensive team (they are the #1 rated offensive team when adjusted for efficiency), and they have the national player of the year on their team.
The floor tonight is going to be littered with talent at every position. You could make the argument that the game will be decided on the perimeter – Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Luke Hancock vs. Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas. Or you could say it will be the front court that will be the determining factor – Gorgui Dieng, Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell vs. Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Jordan Morgan. And you can even say the outcome of the game will come down to coaching – Rick Pitino vs. John Beilein.
Chances are, it’s going to be a combination of all of that.
But Louisville has been the best team for most of the season and has certainly been the best team in the tournament. They are a veteran squad looking to avenge their early departure from the Final Four a year ago. And they are riding the emotional wave of Kevin Ware.
At the end of the day we are being treated to a national championship between the best defensive team in the country and the best offensive team in the country. And both teams are pretty darn good on the opposite ends of the court as well. Could you ask for much more with everything on the line?