NCAA BK

Does Louisville have chance in final?

Reid Forgrave on the championship game storylines.
Reid Forgrave on the championship game storylines.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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ATLANTA

The consensus player of the year, who seemingly has spent every waking moment this week corralling the hardware that goes with all these awards, ended up having a mediocre, pedestrian night.

If someone told you what Michigan point guard Trey Burke’s stat line would look like against Syracuse’s previously impenetrable 2-3 zone in Saturday night’s Final Four game — 1-of-8 shooting; seven points, his second-lowest scoring output of the season; four assists, one more than his season low — you would have guessed there’s no way Michigan would be playing in Monday’s national title game against Louisville.

Stir in a couple other numbers — like the team’s other two 3-point gunners, Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Nik Stauskas, going 3 for 14 from beyond the arc, or Mitch McGary throwing up bricks as he shot 33 percent from the stripe, or the Wolverines scoring their fifth-lowest point total of the season — and this had all the makings of an old-fashioned Syracuse blowout.

Except it wasn’t.

“At the end of the day, it wasn't offense,” Burke said. “A lot of us didn't have good shooting nights. But it was defense that allowed us to advance.”

Michigan has not been a team known for its defense, but it was an impressive defensive display that won this game for the team ranked first in the nation in offensive efficiency. Its sloppy, ugly, free-throw-missing, brick-tossing effort was of the grind-it-out Big Ten mold that this exciting offensive team has eschewed all year.

In the end, the 61-56 victory gave Michigan a shot at its first national title since 1989, and ought to give Louisville some pretty big headaches in its day-and-a-half of preparation before the best offense in the country (Michigan) faces the best defense in the country (Louisville) in what promises to be a stellar strength-on-strength title game on Monday.

Because if Michigan plays this well when it’s playing rather poorly, what will happen if it’s playing well?

The difference between Michigan a month ago, when it bumbled to the end of the regular season with a 5-5 record (including a loss to Big Ten cellar dweller Penn State) and Michigan on Saturday, when it beat a red-hot Syracuse team despite not playing its best, can be summed up in two words: Mitch McGary.

In just his seventh career start, the bulky freshman netted a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. This was his third double-double of the NCAA tournament after only having two double-doubles all regular season. More impressively, the 20-year-old kid who’d had 18 assists all season found the holes in the middle of the Syracuse zone and dished out six on Saturday. In a few weeks he’s gone from never having started a game in college to being talked about (among the irrationally exuberant, at least) as an NBA lottery pick.

But as good as McGary was on Saturday, he joined his teammates during the final few minutes in what seemed like their frantic effort to try and lose the game. With a little more than three minutes left, Michigan led by eight and had the ball. But McGary coughed it up to Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams, which led to a dunk by C.J. Fair.

The next possession Hardaway, Jr. got rejected; on the next possession, Burke tossed a pass out of bounds (off McGary’s hands) and James Southerland followed with a dunk. Suddenly it was a four-point game with less than a minute left, and McGary was at the free-throw line, shooting two. He missed the first. He missed the second — but was given a re-do because of a Syracuse lane violation. He proceeded to miss the re-do.

It was as if the Wolverines didn’t want to win this game, and the fact that they didn’t have any timeouts left over the last 1:51 of the game made us all remember Chris Webber and the last time Michigan blew a big game in the waning seconds.

But a charge call on Syracuse’s Brandon Triche as he drove toward the basket — a 50-50 call at best, when McGary appeared to slide under Triche at the final moment — gave Michigan the ball up two with 19 seconds left. And after a made free throw and Jordan Morgan dunk just before the buzzer, Michigan had a five-point victory in a game that was for all intents and purposes a one-possession ending, a nail-biter that probably took several weeks off most diehard Michigan fans’ lives.

If you’re a Louisville fan, you could look at it in an optimistic fashion: Man, Michigan just didn’t look that good.

Except…

“We know Trey is our leader,” Hardaway said. “He’s not going to have a game like he’s always been the whole season. That’s when our team steps up; just tries to pick him up.”

That is the more realistic takeaway from this Wolverines win: Even though their player-of-the-year point guard had an off night, even though their shots weren’t dropping, even though they tried their best to give the game away in the end, they still won, and were clearly the better team. It’s a scary thought for Louisville going into Monday’s title game.

“It’s kind of surreal,” Burke said. “Growing up as a kid, watching March Madness, you always wanted to see yourself playing in the Final Four, playing in the national championship.”

And now the best player in the nation will be playing in the biggest game of the year. It’s a perfect matchup for a title, so don’t expect Trey Burke to have another so-so game. But if he does, his teammates proved Saturday they’re more than capable of winning without him.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Louisville, Michigan, Syracuse, Tim Hardaway Jr.

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