The Michigan Wolverines and Louisville Cardinals held their mandatory press conferences on Sunday, but there’s not much left to say.
The nation’s best offense will face the nation’s best defense Monday night, and the winner will take home a national championship.
For the Wolverines to earn their second NCAA tournament title, they’ll need a big game from Trey Burke, who’s won awards on almost a daily basis since the regular season ended.
Burke’s shot has been oddly inconsistent throughout the tournament, and he struggled badly Saturday to get anything going against the Syracuse press — although his defense, passing and rebounding were crucial in the 61-56 victory.
Monday’s game should be a better matchup for him. Instead of facing Jim Boeheim’s wall of long, athletic guards, Burke will be going up against players his own size and a defense that will let him run the pick-and-roll, which has helped turn Mitch McGary into a household name.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Rick Pitino has been working on his press almost as long as Boeheim has developed his zone, and has had just as much success. The Cardinals are the most efficient defense in the country, allowing only 82.4 points per 100 possessions, and are second in both steals and turnovers.
(The good news for Michigan is, VCU is first in steals and turnovers, and the Wolverines shredded Shaka Smart’s vaunted Havoc press two weeks ago at the Palace.)
Burke will facing a group of quick guards, led by Cardinals star Russ Smith. Smith and Peyton Siva are both small — they are listed at the same 6-foot as Burke — but they feast on turnovers and transition offense. Michigan will need Tim Hardaway Jr. and Spike Albrecht to help get the ball up the floor, as they did against VCU.
If Michigan can break the press, Burke should be able to get into the paint, but he’s going to be facing another problem: Louisville sophomore Gorgui Dieng. Dieng doesn’t block shots quite as often as Kansas’ Jeff Withey, but McGary will have to keep him busy for Burke to be effective at the rim.
McGary and Glenn Robinson III should also be able to crash the offensive boards, since Louisville is not a strong defensive-rebounding team.
On the other end of the floor, the Cardinals have had troubles at times. They trailed Wichita State for most of Saturday’s other semifinal, and needed surprising offense off the bench from walk-on Tim Henderson and Luke Hancock.
Smith and Siva combined to go 7-for-26, and Dieng missed the only shot he took. If Dieng doesn’t get involved in the offense Monday, McGary will have room to help Burke and Hardaway when the Cardinals try to get to the basket.
Kevin Ware, while an inspiration to Louisville after his horrific leg injury last weekend, will be missed on the floor. He was an effective scoring option off the bench for the Cardinals, who will have to find another way to get 15 minutes of rest for Smith and Siva.
Burke and McGary are certainly going to need help. Not only will Hardaway and Stauskas be handling the ball, Hardaway will have to find his wayward shooting touch. The Wolverines also need the Nik Stauskas who hit six 3-pointers against Florida, not the one who has spent most of the last two months looking lost on offense and defense.
Albrecht and Caris LeVert will both get chances to duplicate the scoring they provided against Syracuse, and Jordan Morgan will get the call for late-game defense.
Against about 340 of the 346 other D-I teams, Pitino would give the Cardinals a big edge in the coaching department, but John Beilein has silenced most critics during this tourney run. He finally beat Boeheim, his mentor, and he’s had the Wolverines ready to blow out both VCU and Florida with just one day between games.
Between Beilein’s teaching and their experience against the Havoc press, the Wolverines should be ready for everything Pitino throws at them.