NCAA National Championship Final
Louisville Cardinals (34-5, 14-4 Big East) vs. Michigan Wolverines (31-7, 12-6 Big Ten)
Louisville head coach, Rick Pitino, is going after his second NCAA Championship, just days after being informed that he will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame later this year.
Pitino's first championship came at Kentucky, when the Wildcats captured the 1996 title with a 76-67 win over Syracuse.
This year's Louisville squad has some remnants of that '96 championship team, in terms of speed and size, though the Kentucky team was arguably a superior offensive force, with the likes of Tony Delk, Antoine Walker and Walter McCarty, while this Louisville group relies heavily on pressure defense and the skills of their backcourt duo, Peyton Siva and the electrifying Russ Smith, who is averaging a cool 25 points per game in Louisville's five tourney wins.
Another advantage Louisville may have over the Wolverines is their size in the front court and rebounding prowess. Gorgui Deing and Chane Behanan can dominate the paint, along with reserve, Montrezl Harrell, who should get ample floor time, as he did in the Cardinals' ripping, 72-68, win over Wichita State in the national semifinal, the four-point victory the closest any team has come to beating Louisville through five rounds. Deing is also a fearless shot-blocker, which will make Michigan's penetration a daunting task.
The Cardinals enter the fray riding a 15-game winning streak dating back to February 9 and are favored by 3 1/2 points over Michigan.
Louisville has won two national titles, in 1980 and 1986. Tis is their 38th tournament appearance, ninth time in the Final Four. The Cardinals have a 64-40 record in the NCAA tournament.
For the Wolverines, it's their first trip to the championship game since 1993, when Steve Fisher guided the "Fab Five" to their second straight title game loss (77-71 to North Carolina) and their first championship appearance under head coach John Beilein, who is in his first Final Four as a coach. The youngest team in the tournament field, Michigan has surpassed all expectations, but is loaded with hoops-pedigree talent in the likes of Glenn Robinson III, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jon Horford.
Michigan won their only national championship in 1989, when the Wolverines topped Seton Hall, 80-79, in overtime. It is their 23rd tourney appearance, with a 43-22 record and their sixth time in the Final Four.
Point guard, Trey Burke, who is expected to be named the national player of the year, will have most of the responsibility for breaking the Louisville press and getting the ball into the lane or out to the wings for three-point shooters, Hardaway and Nik Stauskas. A tireless performer, Burke has played 35 or more minutes in each of Michigan's five tournament games, totaling 35 assists, with a high of 10 in the Wolverines' 87-85 overtime win against Kansas, the South region's #1 seed.
While the Wolverines have ample outside shooting, the difference-maker may be freshman Mitch McGary, who has emerged as a force in the paint throughout the tournament. Besides his inexperience, the problem for McGary is that he will be mostly alone amongst the Louisville trees in the low post. He'll need help from Robinson on the boards. Burke and Hardaway are also good rebounding guards, who will have to contribute.
Either team has a legitimate shot at the championship crown. It will be up to Louisville to disrupt Michigan's fast flow offense, while the Wolverines must guard against turnovers and domination in the paint by the Cardinals.
The match-up of point guards Siva and Burke should be a great game-within-the-game. The contest may come down to just how well Russ Smith performs, as he is likely the most dangerous player on the floor in a game loaded with future pros.