ATLANTA -- When the NCAA men's basketball committee released the tournament bracket three weeks ago, I predicted, as did many of my media brethren, that the Louisville Cardinals would win the national championship. As recently as last Friday, I argued that this Final Four should be called Louisville and the Three Teams That Aren't Louisville, and repeated my prediction -- nay, my assertion -- that the Cardinals would cut down the nets at the Georgia Dome.
Given how topsy turvy this season has been, it is therefore fitting that now, as we have at long last reached the final day of the 2012-13 season, I am prepared to turn my world over one last time and make yet another confident prediction:
Michigan is gonna win this thing.
Why the about face? Here are my final four reasons:
Notice I didn't say Michigan will handle the press. I am saying they will get buckets. This is a critical distinction. For the most part, Wichita State did a good job fighting through Louisville's pressure on Saturday night, but when the Shockers got the ball into the frontcourt, they pulled the ball out and ran their halfcourt offense. I don't believe the Wolverines will need to do this.
For evidence, all you have to do is think back on the Wolverines' disembowelment of VCU in the Round of 32. Michigan committed just 12 turnovers against the Rams' vaunted "havoc" defense, and they shot nearly 52 percent from the field because they got so many open layups at the rim. Everybody on the Wolverines' roster can handle, pass and shoot. For all the speed on this team, the players are always under control. Indeed, it is remarkable that for a team that likes to get out and go, Michigan ranks first nationally in offensive turnover percentage. This is John Beilein's culture: You take care of the ball, or you do not play.
It speaks volumes about how balanced and deep Michigan is that it was able to defeat a plucky Syracuse team even though Burke, the consensus National Player of the Year, had his worst scoring game of the season. The 6-foot sophomore point guard made just 1-of-8 from the floor (1-for-4 from three) to finish with seven points. It was just his second single-digit performance of the season (his six-point outing in the first round against South Dakota State was the other), and it was the only time all season that Burke failed to score more than one field goal. Burke contributed in other areas (five rebounds, four assists, two steals), but if Michigan is going to beat Louisville, it will need its best player to play his best.
I think he will. Now that Burke has a game under his belt to settle his nerves and get used to the Dome, he is primed to revert to his POY form. Alas, I can't say the same for his counterpart, Louisville point guard Peyton Siva. He shot 1-for-9 from the floor (0-for-5 from three) against Wichita State, but that was no aberration. If you take away Siva's 6-for-10, 16-point performance in the regional final win over Duke, the last time he shot 50 percent in a game was Feb. 3. As a team, Louisville actually shot 45 percent against the Shockers, and yet they still almost lost to a No. 9 seed. They can play better than they did on Saturday. But Michigan -- and especially Burke -- can play a lot better. I'm confident he will.
You'd be hard-pressed to find an example of an inexperienced player improving as dramatically and quickly as McGary has the last month. (Notice I called him inexperienced, not young. McGary may be a freshman, but he is 21 years old.) To take just one barometer: During the season, McGary had just seven double-digit scoring games. He has reached that level in every one of the Wolverines' NCAA tournament games, and though his season high going into the postseason was 14, he had 21 and 25 points, respectively, in wins over VCU and Kansas.
Much of McGary's meteoric rise is rooted in opportunity (an ankle injury to junior forward Jordan Morgan paved the way for McGary to enter the starting lineup in late February), but it's also the result of good old-fashioned maturity. Like a lot of freshman big men, McGary came to Ann Arbor overweight and out of condition. It has taken time for him to shed 20 pounds of baby fat. Once that happened, he was able to take advantage of his innate strength and explosiveness.
But the most important piece of real estate in the world of Michigan basketball right now is the six inches between McGary's ears. He is thinking the game at a level that could never have been anticipated before the tournament began. There's no better example of that than Saturday night, when McGary led the Wolverines in assists with six (to just three turnovers). Moreover, on the few possessions where Syracuse played a full-court press in an effort to come back, McGary demonstrated an ability to handle and pass the ball in the open court, without committing a charge. He will have many more opportunities to do that on Monday night.
The few times when Michigan lost this season, it was because the Wolverines lacked a scoring presence in the post and were unable to make up a bad shooting night on the offensive glass. McGary takes care of both these problems. Before McGary was playing this well, Michigan was already one of the best teams in the country, a team that at one point was ranked number one in both polls. When's the last time you saw a team this good get this much better in March?
Ware is not just a sentimental story. Before he broke his leg against Duke, he was emerging as a valuable and versatile role player. Not only did Ware give the Cardinals another athlete on the full-court press, he provided valuable depth when Siva and/or Russ Smith either didn't perform or got into foul trouble. Siva in particular has had a habit of committing silly fouls, yet he only had one against Wichita State. Given how much quicker the pace of this game is likely to be, the chances of Siva staying out of foul trouble are considerably smaller. And Louisville will miss Ware's presence on the press even more against Michigan, because Michigan has many more ballhandlers who need to be chased and trapped.
Keep this in mind as well. Although Luke Hancock was rightly tabbed as the hero in the win over the Shockers, the most important points were provided by walk-on guard Tim Henderson. He came into the Final Four having made four three-pointers all season. He made two in a span of 42 seconds midway through the second half that turned a 12-point deficit into a six-point deficit. It completely changed the tenor of the game. Was that a onetime thing, or is Henderson going to do repeat that performance Monday night? If it's the former, then Louisville is going to feel Ware's absence even more dramatically than it did on Saturday. And the Cardinals were very, very fortunate to win on Saturday.
Don't get me wrong -- of course I know that Louisville is a great team. I might even concede that Louisville is a better team than Michigan (although it's close). But if there's one thing we've learned over the years about the NCAA tournament, we've learned that it's not about who's the better team. It's about who has the better matchup. That's what basketball is all about: Your strengths versus my weaknesses, my strengths versus your weaknesses. It's also your strengths versus my strengths. Michigan matches up beautifully with Louisville because Michigan's strengths (guard play) correlate well with Louisville's strengths (full court press).
In short, this has been a season full of surprises, so why not one more? Louisville may have earned the tournament's number one overall seed and been by far the most popular pick to win the tile, but when the final seconds tick off the season's final game, the Michigan Wolverines will be the last ones standing.
My mind is made up. Finally. Hail to the victors.