Two former champions, each of whom last laid claim to the title of college basketball's best in the 1980s, take the stage at the Georgia Dome tonight for the chance to raise another banner to the rafters at the beginning of the 2013-14 season.
Louisville. Michigan. The Cardinals. The Wolverines. Two teams with enough history and moments to go around the buffet table a good six or seven times, even then with a few more stories to keep everyone entertained until the end of the night.
Over the course of our 120 games this season, we had the pleasure of watching both Louisville and Michigan live, even if it was way before any of us had a clue as to how the field of 68 would ultimately be constructed, let alone played out. Both teams won the games in which we saw them, each providing their own first impression in a season filled with the expected and the extraordinary, the studs and the duds, and the trivial sublime. (Yes, I tied the national championship into this 1990s classic)
Louisville. Michigan. Two teams, one champion.
Louisville Cardinals (34-5)
Last National Championship: 1986 (defeated Duke under Denny Crum in their most recent appearance in the title game)
When We Saw Them: January 9th (defeated Seton Hall 73-58 at the Prudential Center)
What They Bring to the Table: Arguably one of the greatest defenses in the nation. Head coach Rick Pitino's emphasis on deflections and pressure dictates the Louisville attack, and in the aforementioned game against Seton Hall, the Cardinals relied on their defensive aggressiveness to outscore Seton Hall 31-16 down the stretch and turn what had been a 42-all tie and closely contested matchup into a one-sided rout in a matter of minutes. Gorgui Dieng was the star of the show that night in January, posting a double-double with 16 points and 14 rebounds, adding three blocked shots in a contest that saw him get much better as the night went on. Montrezl Harrell got the start against Seton Hall in place of Chane Behanan, and proceeded to score 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting while the now-injured Kevin Ware added an energy that was missing in Kevin Willard's Pirates, scoring six points in 17 minutes. In addition, Luke Hancock started the run against Seton Hall with two quick three-pointers, similar to how he lifted the Cardinals into this matchup following his flair for the dramatic against Wichita State on Saturday.
Russ Smith looks to put finishing touch on an emotional stretch run. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)
In addition to the Louisville frontcourt, the Cards' backcourt duo of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva came up big as well, combining for 18 points and 13 assists against the younger and more inexperienced Pirate guards. Since then, Siva has blossomed into one of the nation's elite point guards, particularly on the defensive end; while Smith, a Queens product from Archbishop Molloy, has been lighting up box scores since Louisville's run to a Big East championship, dedicating his season to former high school coach Jack Curran, who passed away last month while in the midst of his unprecedented 55th season at the helm of the Stanners.
Where They Have An Advantage: Obviously, Louisville's defense is their biggest strength against the Wolverines. The Cardinals are as stingy as they come, yielding just 58 points per game on average this season while forcing over 18 turnovers per contest. While only managing an average of 37 rebounds a night, Louisville should have a decided advantage on the glass when going through preliminary analysis of this matchup, simply by virtue of Michigan's Princeton-inspired offense that predicates itself on back-door cuts, three-point shots and long possessions.
Where They Might Struggle: Defending the three-point line. Michigan comes into tonight's matchup shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc as a team, and will look to exploit their strength from long range as often as possible. However, Louisville has the benefit of taking on a Notre Dame team that was even more proficient from three than Michigan is, and limited the Fighting Irish to a combined 30 percent from deep in their two meetings against Mike Brey's team; which the Cardinals split, taking their semifinal collision in the Big East Tournament after Notre Dame's epic five-overtime victory in South Bend on February 9th, which stands as the Cardinals' last loss.
Biggest Key to Victory: Gorgui Dieng being able to draw fouls rather than commit them. One could argue that Louisville would be better served trying to find a second scoring option since Russ Smith is the only player averaging double figures on the Cardinal roster, but Dieng will be targeted early and often by the Michigan defense; and if the game is close in the final minutes, he is a safer bet to make a clutch foul shot than his counterpart, Mitch McGary, is.
Michigan Wolverines (31-7)
Last National Championship: 1989 (defeated Seton Hall under Steve Fisher, but lost both of their last two title game appearances [to Duke in 1992 and North Carolina in 1993])
When We Saw Them: December 15th (defeated West Virginia 81-66 at the Barclays Center in the Winter Hoops Festival)
What They Bring to the Table: An offense that is simply a joy to watch. Head coach John Beilein is simply a genius on that side of the ball, molding the Wolverines in the same fashion as his mid-2000s teams at West Virginia, using the Princeton-influenced style to create a scheme that caught several Big Ten opponents off guard during the season as Michigan started 16-0. Wooden and Naismith Award winner Trey Burke was at his absolute best on the aforementioned night in Brooklyn, pouring in 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting while contributing eight assists without a single turnover, with his backcourt mate Tim Hardaway Jr. adding 25 points of his own as the Wolverines shot 56 percent from the field en route to the victory.
As is the case with every Beilein-coached team, not only does Michigan get better as the season goes on, they are also a high-percentage shooting outfit, and their 48 percent clip from the field only confirms that. The Wolverines are as smart and efficient as they come, and will be certain to maximize the shot clock as Burke and Hardaway try to break the Louisville press. The Michigan bench will also be a bigger factor than one may initially suggest, especially if Burke is able to wear down Peyton Siva and if Beilein's defense can force Russ Smith into another lackluster shooting night like he had against Wichita State in the Cardinals' Final Four matchup. Only two Wolverine reserves play more than ten minutes per game on average, but both are special in their own way. Caris LeVert is the perfect complement to Hardaway off the ball, and gives the lineup an entirely different energy while also positively feeding off Burke, while Jordan Morgan does the little things that the box scores neglect, such as taking a charge in the final seconds to help preserve a victory over Syracuse that he added the exclamation point to with his last-second dunk.
Where They Have An Advantage: In the backcourt. Burke and Hardaway are a better scoring duo than Smith and Siva, and while both point guards are proficient ball handlers, Hardaway is more consistent on both sides of the ball than Smith, especially if the player known as "Russdiculous" gets flustered in the opening minutes. Smith's confidence becomes fragile when he is unable to find good shots, whereas Hardaway's NBA lineage helps him remain calm under pressure, allowing the game to come to him. This matchup at the shooting guard position will be just as important as Burke's battle with Siva.
Where They Might Struggle: On the glass and at the foul line. Being a team that relies on a Princeton style offensively, Michigan sacrifices rebounds for efficiency, which will give Louisville the opening they need to attack the boards and establish Gorgui Dieng as a lane presence. As far as free throws, Michigan does shoot a satisfactory 70 percent at the charity stripe, but their ability to convert the free points in crunch time can be a major question mark. Look no further than the Wolverines' game against Syracuse on Saturday, where Michigan shot 11-of-20 at the line, with Mitch McGary missing four of his six attempts and the team as a whole missing four of six in the final minute.
Nik Stauskas' outside shooting could be X-factor for Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)
Biggest Key to Victory: The shooting of Nik Stauskas. The Canadian freshman shoots an astounding 44 percent from three-point range, and will be one of the primary options when dishing the ball out against Louisville's defense, particularly when the Cardinals employ their press. If Stauskas gets on a roll early, Michigan could be on their way to a win similar to their Elite Eight victory against Florida. If not, Burke and Hardaway are equally as proficient beyond the arc, but will have their hands full with Siva and Smith.
Forty minutes. Two teams. One champion. Whatever happens, the world at large will have a chance to see what we were privileged to watch in December and January, and you can't ask for anything better.