Michigan's Mitch McGary
(center) may prove to be to be the difference for the Wolverines
on Monday night. (Getty)
ATLANTA -- The national title game is an incredible contrast of styles, with the nation's best offense ready to challenge its best defense, with turnover creation and prevention being the major key. Michigan comes in oozing with underclass talent and potency. Louisville counters with extreme defensive pressure and experience. It should be a really compelling encounter. Here's what to watch for:
When Michigan has the ball
The first question, as it always is against Louisville, is how long and how often you can keep the ball, but Michigan is as prepared as any team to be able to handle the Cardinals' pressure.
Point guard Trey Burke won the Wooden Award and a multitude of other national player of the year honors, and he heads up a Wolverines attack that was the nation's most prudent with the basketball, turning it over on just 14.5 percent of their possessions for the season. The fact Michigan gets shots off on more possessions than any other team in the nation is a large reason why they are also the most efficient offense in the country, at almost 1.22 points per possession for the season. Before the relative slog against Syracuse in Saturday's semifinal, the Wolverines had been above 1.10 PPP in all of their NCAA tournament wins, so increased opponent quality is not slowing them down considerably.
The Wolverines will not be afraid to attack Louisville off the press break and they have the athletes to play that style of game against the Cardinals. They also have the capability to succeed in half court sets and, especially with Mitch McGary, to hurt Louisville on the offensive glass. Michigan has turned into a much more imposing team in terms of second chances in the NCAAs and McGary's insertion into the starting lineup and increased minutes is a big part of that.
Louisville is going to have to try to pry the ball loose as much as possible, in part to defuse the Wolverines and in part to fuel its own offense, which is heavily reliant on runout creation off turnovers. Generally sturdy in the halfcourt, the Cardinals did not look great in that area against Wichita State on Saturday. Michigan has much better offensive weapons than the Shockers, so Louisville will need a much better effort, especially from its starters.
Michigan has already played VCU in this run. While the Rams' press (and especially the quality of their halfcourt defense) are not the same as Louisville's, they will be able to take from their success there and watch what Wichita State was able to do for most of Saturday and cobble together a plan.
When Louisville has the ball
Just like the talk ahead of Michigan-Syracuse, this "weakness vs. weakness" matchup should be a significant discussion point.
Louisville is not a great shooting team, so if you can prevent them from causing turnovers that lead to easy baskets, you can stifle them. Despite Tim Henderson's two enormous threes that helped the Cardinals rally back against Wichita State, the Cardinals don't really have a viable backup to Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, and they will need to collectively play better than they did Saturday for the Cardinals to win.
Luke Hancock has emerged down the stretch as a very important perimeter option to compliment the two main guards, and he was huge against the Shockers. You may very well see more of Montrezl Harrell again, especially if Dieng is struggling and non-impactful.
Louisville is a much more effective offense when they're attacking the rim rather than settling for jump shots. At one point against Wichita State, the Cardinals had taken 21 threes and 11 twos. Credit the Shockers' defensive plan for choking off the lane, but Michigan's not good enough to do that for 40 minutes. Louisville's guards should have more success on the drive and will need to be patient and continue to exploit these opportunities.
Michigan's defensive improvement in the NCAAs has been a much-hidden story, but other than the Kansas game, where their interior softness nearly saw them bounced from the tournament, they have held all four other foes to 0.94 PPP or worse. If they hold Louisville anywhere in that area Monday night, they will win the game. They have multiple options to throw at Smith and Siva. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals' guards, who played 70 combined minutes vs. Wichita State, rebound just two nights later. Big East teams should be relatively used to that kind of turnaround, as it happens in league play sometimes between Saturdays and Mondays, but we'll see.
With the run Mitch McGary is on, he's a prime candidate for this category. Louisville may have a very hard time keeping hold of him inside as his strength and effort may be a problem inside the Cardinals' zone. With the stakes, pressure and possible fatigue, as well as potential foul trouble, the correct answer, though, may be both benches.
Hancock poured in 20 crucial points for the Cardinals, but that's not totally unexpected from him as he's become a more impactful secondary scorer late in the season. The Cards also got big, first-half help from Harrell along with the two huge shots from Henderson. Not filling the box score but playing a very crucial role, too, was Stephen Van Treese, who's solid screensetting in the second half was part of what enabled the Cardinals to get in the lane off the bounce and finally break free of their addiction to three-point shots.
Michigan survived a combined 5-for-29 shooting from Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nic Stauskas in part because the bench had 21 of their 61 points. Caris LeVert came out of nowhere to log 21 minutes with very good effect, but the rest of the reserves had 13 points in 13 total minutes -- just the lift the Wolverines needed in a slog against the Orange.
The Wolverines obviously remain a young team, but that relative lack of experience can't really be used as a qualifier anymore. They have beaten four very good teams to make it to this point and won a couple of games when large portions haven't gone well. They have the talent to overcome any foibles. They also have seen pressure (VCU) and a zone (Syracuse) in the last two weeks. Neither is the same experience as facing Louisville, but Michigan should have more of an ease in transitioning from Saturday night's game to Monday's than Louisville, who faced a very, very different style of opponent and now has 48 hours to prepare for Michigan's varied offensive attack.
Neither team played well Saturday, but the Wolverines look like they're the team with more options at this point. If the Cardinals can't create turnovers (like most of the game against Wichita State), their offense can look extremely average for long stretches. Michigan's defense has been much improved in the tournament and Trey Burke and Co. should be comfortable enough with the ball not to feed the Louisville Machine and enable them to keep pressing their advantage.
I had Louisville as my pick before the tournament (like many others), but based on the matchup, I'm going to flip. Michigan is a modest underdog according to Vegas, but take the Wolverines to claim their first national championship since 1989.