In the run-up to Monday's national title game, much has rightfully been (and will be) made of the matchup between Michigan's offense and Louisville's defense, each of which are the most efficient such units in the country. The game will also feature several intriguing matchups on the individual level, any one of which could give a team the edge in a tight game.
Peyton Siva vs. Trey Burke
Starting at the top, the title-game point guards each make their units go in different ways. Burke, the recently crowned National Player of the Year who said yesterday he has yet to have a "really, really good game" this season, is a quality outside shooter with range (like this) who can also carve up defenses with his speed and ability to penetrate. Meanwhile Siva is a rather lackluster three-point shooter who probes the defense and runs ball screens to create higher percentage shots for himself and others.
But while the two-time Big East tournament MVP is not quite the dynamic scorer Burke is, Siva's pesky, opportunistic defense (his steal percentage ranks 34th nationally) at the head of Louisville's pressure could help disrupt Burke's offense. Burke (and the rest of the Wolverines) handled VCU's Havoc without much trouble, but the Rams don't defend halfcourt sets nearly as well as the Cardinals. Siva has been known to get into foul trouble, however, which he will have to be careful to avoid against a sure-handed, aggressive Burke, especially without Kevin Ware being available to spell him off the bench.
Russ Smith vs. Tim Hardaway Jr.
Hardaway has a six-inch height advantage over Smith, but the man they call Russdiculous is as quick as they come. On defense, Smith will have to use that quickness and his knack for steals to keep Hardaway at bay and not give him room for catch-and-shoot three-pointers that Smith's lack of height will make it difficult to contest. Hardaway will have his work cut out for him trying to keep Smith in front of him, as the third-team All-American can seemingly get to the rim at will at times, and compared to Siva he is much more likely to make you pay from beyond the arc if you play off of him. Smith is also insanely dangerous in transition, but as the GIF in this early March edition of Luke Winn's Power Rankings shows, there is only so much anyone can do about that.
Wayne Blackshear/Luke Hancock vs. Nik Stauskas
Blackshear and Hancock are lumped together because while Blackshear will likely start the game, Hancock will get starters' minutes at the three spot. Hancock was absolutely essential in the Cardinals' win over Wichita State on Saturday, hitting a pair of late threes and forcing a jump ball after a missed free throw that gave Louisville the ball with six seconds left. The 6-foot-6 junior George Mason transfer is one of those players that can do a bit of everything, but his biggest asset on a mediocre jump-shooting team is his ability to connect from outside. Stauskas, as Florida learned during its 22-point first half in the Elite 8, can shoot a bit himself, and whether it's Blackshear or Hancock, they will need to be sure to stay on him at all times to prevent spot-up threes in transition. The juicy matchups may be in the backcourts and between Mitch McGary and Gorgui Dieng inside, but this is a spot where either team could get a critical boost from secondary scoring.
Chane Behanan vs. Glenn Robinson III
In the midst of one of Sunday's more entertaining media-day interviews (during which he joked that walk-on-turned-star Tim Henderson is "being carried on thrones by beautiful women" and compared teammate Stephan Van Treese to a Monstar from "Space Jam"), Behanan was asked by a reporter whether he sees similarities between his game and Robinson's and responded with a simple no. Robinson, as Behanan pointed out, does much more of his scoring from outside the paint and, at 6-6 and 210 pounds, excels with length and athleticism. Behanan, who also stands 6-6 but at 250 pounds, is a more rugged inside player who Pitino dared compare to Charles Barkley in the preseason. Robinson may drag him away from the basket at times, but Behanan should (and will need to) do his usual work on the boards for Louisville, and on offense, his size and strength advantage will work in the Cardinals' favor when posting up.
Gorgui Dieng vs. Mitch McGary
Saturday's win over Wichita State was one to forget for Dieng, who aside from a few rebounds was a nonfactor, taking (and missing) only one shot in 30 minutes. In the next game, McGary's ascent to breakout star continued as he busted Syracuse's 2-3 zone from the high post with 10 points and six assists (plus 12 rebounds). But a month ago it was Dieng upon whom the compliments were reaped for playing the same eye-opening role against the Orange, and Saturday's struggles aside, Dieng has shown his versatility with a strong finish to his third and final year as a Cardinal. (Though Pitino joked Sunday that if he played like he did Saturday again, Dieng would have to come back next year.) The 6-11, 245-pounder has shown off a deft midrange jumper and shot 80 percent from the field through Louisville's first five tourney games.
Dieng is Louisville's best overall rebounder; McGary is strong on the defensive glass and among the nation's elite on the offensive end. McGary is 14th in the Big Ten with a block rate of 3.91 percent; Dieng is fifth in the Big East and top-50 nationally with a rate of 9.41 percent. McGary is a freshman who only became a full-time starter two and a half weeks ago; Dieng is a junior who was a starter and key cog on Louisville's Final Four run last season. Many eyes will naturally be on the battle between these two teams' stellar backcourts, but the battle between these two inside should be just as good.
Rick Pitino vs. John Beilein They have had wildly different paths here, Beilein in his first Final Four after clawing his way up the coaching ladder from among its lowest collegiate rungs; Pitino a Hall of Famer who landed his first Division I gig at age 26, had three NBA stints and is coaching in his seventh final weekend. Those paths have crossed on the court four times, with Pitino's teams winning three of the four meetings. Three of those meetings were while Beilein was at West Virginia from 2005-07 (the fourth was Pitino's Kentucky team blowing out Canisius in 1997) and all three were tight; Pitino's Cardinals needed overtime in the 2005 Elite 8 and double-OT in the 2007 regular season to put away the Mountaineers, while West Virginia won by four in 2006. "I know what he's all about," Pitino said of Beilein in yesterday's news conference, "and that's about great things." Yes, those previous meetings were different teams with different players in different years, but history is on the side of a close game. If Beilein's Wolverines can handle Louisville's pressure as well as they did VCU's, then space the floor and hit shots in the halfcourt, we should be treated to another one.