NCAA National Championship Preview: Michigan vs. Louisville

(Originally posted at JustCoverBlog on April 8, 2010)

The last time Michigan was in standing 40 minutes from a national title was 20 years and three days ago. That was, of course, the infamous “time out” game against North Carolina.
(If you’re unfamiliar – and if you are you’re probably not reading this, but here goes anyway – Michigan’s Chris Webber called a time out with 11 seconds remaining and the Wolverines trailing 73-71. The problem: Michigan was out of time outs. The technical foul resulted in two free throws – both makes – and the ball back to North Carolina. Michigan lost the title game 77-71).
Nevertheless, as many bad memories as Michigan fans have from that game, getting back to basketball’s title game is something to celebrate in itself. According to Kenpom Michigan road to the Final Four was the eighth hardest (out of 44 teams) in the 11 years he’s been filling our brains with tempo-free statistics. If Michigan wins the title, I’m curious where the Wolverines’ run would rank out of the 11 champions.

While it can be argued that these aren’t exactly the two best teams in the country playing for the title (I would still say Indiana and Kansas are better overall teams than Michigan) there is no doubt both teams are elite and either is more than worthy of being crowned the national champions. The Big Ten, even Michigan State believe it or not, is likely pulling for Michigan tonight to snap the “Big Ten hasn’t won a national championship since Michigan State’s 2000″ narrative that has gotten old quickly. People ignore the fact that since 2000 the Big Ten’s eight Final four teams trails only the ACC’s nine. (If you include 2000 both the Big Ten and ACC have 10 Final Four squads). So, it isn’t like the Big Ten’s lack of a champion in the past 12-plus years somehow reflects a poor conference; in fact, statistics and tournament runs show the Big Ten has as good of teams as any conference in the country year in and year out. It just never seems to have the best team.
Could 2013 be different? It’s up to Michigan, an under-seeded squad trying to become just the second No. 4 seed ever (Arizona, 1997) to win the national title.
Here's a big breakdown of Monday's title game in Atlanta (h/t to Kenpom):
Michigan (31-7) vs. Louisville (34-5)
Line: Louisville -4
Kenpom Score: Louisville 71-66 (68%)
Kenpom ranking: Michigan 5th, Louisville 1st
Offensive efficiency: Michigan 121.7 (1st), Louisville 118.0 (5th)
Defensive efficiency: Michigan 91.6 (32nd), Louisville 82.4 (1st)
eFG%: Michigan 54.4 (11th), Louisville 50.5 (92nd)
TO%: Michigan 14.5 (1st), Louisville 18.4 (86th)
OR%: Michigan 32.5 (139th), Louisville 38.1 (17th)
FT Rate: Michigan 27.9 (338th), Louisville 40.0 (68th)
Tempo: Michigan 65.1 (207th), Louisville 66.8 (125th)
This is the first time in the Kenpom era that the No. 1 offensive efficiency team (Michigan) is facing the No. 1 defensive efficiency team (Louisville) for the title. It’s hardly the first time, however, one team with either the best offense or best defense has reached the title game. In the previous 10 seasons there were four occasions where the No. 1 offense reached the championship game and two others where the No. 1 defense played on Monday night. 
The No. 1 offenses are 4-0 in the title game (North Carolina in 2005, Florida in 2007, North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2010). The No. 1 defenses are 1-1 (Kansas lost in 2003 but won in 2008).
Those No. 1 offenses went against, in order, the following defenses (*ranks after the title game): No. 11 Illinois (2005), No. 15 Ohio State (2007), No. 10 Michigan State (2009) and No. 5 Butler (2010). So, while it wasn’t exactly like going against the top defense in the country it wasn’t like those champions were facing this year’s 0-28 Grambling team ranked No. 347 in defensive efficiency (124.5 points per 100 possessions allowed).
Something is going to have to give tonight, that’s for sure.
There are three big keys to the game: Louisville’s pressure vs. Michigan’s ball handling, the two individual matchups of Mitch McGary vs. Gorgui Dieng and Trey Burke vs. Russ Smith, and Louisville’s 3-point shooting vs. Michigan’s 3-point defense.
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Michigan vs SyracuseLouisville’s pressure vs. Michigan’s ball handling: Not only is Michigan the best team in the country at not turning the ball over (giveaways on just 14.5 percent of possessions) but Trey Burke’s ability to keep calm in such situations and make the right decision much more often than not can’t be calculated. That said, Louisville forces turnovers on 27.3 possessions, second best in the country. (It’s worth noting VCU was No. 1, forcing TOs on 28.5 percent of possessions. Michigan, of course, throttled VCU 78-53 while committing 12 turnovers – 7 by Burke). 
Louisville’s multiple-form press isn’t Arkansas’ 40 Minutes of Hell. In fact, sometimes the pressure is just to slow down a team’s pace and isn’t even trying to get a turnover. Other times it’s like an army invading a castle or an all-out blitz on the goal line in football where a turnover is the only goal.
Recent visions of Michigan dealing with pressure immediately take us back to the final three minutes against Syracuse. Of course, Michigan was playing not to lose at that point while Syracuse was in desperation mode. That was a bad combination for the Wolverines who nearly blew a double-digit lead and looked like they hadn’t faced pressure the entire season. (Specifically, remember the play where Trey Burke was trapped right when he crossed half court and nearly threw the ball out of bounds before Tim Hardaway Jr. made a phenomenal right-place, right-time save?). Those plays will result in easy buckets for Louisville and the Cardinals are fortunate enough to be in this position.
Wichita State was the better team for 34 minutes on Saturday. It might have been an upset in the record books but if you took names off jerseys you would have thought the Shockers were the Cardinals for most of the game. Nevertheless, Louisville found a way to survive and advance even though the press was unsuccessful for much of the game. Wichita State went 26 minutes and 13 seconds without a turnover at one point; that’s incredible in any game but almost a once-in-a-lifetime stat against a Rick Pitino defense.
Louisville doesn’t have to force turnovers to win, but it would make it much easier for the Cardinals. Michigan doesn’t have to take excellent care of the ball to win but it would make things much easier for the Wolverines. This isn’t the be-all, end-all key, but it will definitely help shift the balance.
McGaryMitch McGary vs. Gorgui Dieng: Both men will be at a disadvantage in certain spots. McGary faced the best shot-blocker in the country in Kansas’ Jeff Withey and fared quite well. Now, some would say McGary was the beneficiary of offensive rebounds off Withey blocked shots or shots Withey altered but couldn’t rebound. McGary was able to get by Withey on a few possessions but he’s a different type of shot blocker than Dieng. I think Dieng has the ability to block different-angled shots if that makes sense. Michigan will try to score with weird-angled shots to avoid Dieng’s excessive reach. Tis is where I think Dieng is at his best as he blocks shots that initially appear to be unblockable.
Now, Dieng will be at a disadvantage because McGary will bang him around the post all night long. There won’t be a bigger sigh of relief during Monday’s game than from Dieng when Jon Horford comes in to spell McGary for a bit. Dieng will wear down against a bruiser so that is one thing Louisville will  have to monitor. If I’m Rick Pitino and I script offensive plays to start a game (I don’t believe he does) the first few plays are all post feeds to Dieng. If Louisville can get an early foul on McGary it’ll make him much less aggressive on defense (two fouls will force him to sit the rest of the first half and that would be huge for the Cardinals).
Louisville can survive Michigan’s offensive attack without Dieng in the middle. It would be more difficult, but it’s definitely doable. Michigan can’t survive against Louisville’s defense without McGary roaming the post.
RussSmithTrey Burke vs. Russ Smith: A matchup of arguably the best player in the country vs. the second best player in the country, in that order. That is, unless you’re Ken Pomeroy who has Russ Smith as his KPoy and Burke No. 2. Russdiculous has scored at least 20 points in all of Louisville’s tournament games but he’s far from the reason Louisville has reached the title game. Without Luke Hancock this is a Michigan-Wichita State matchup.
Burke has been good but not great during Michigan’s run. Outside of his game-changing second half and overtime against Kansas Burke is shooting less than 25 percent from the field including a 1-for-8 performance against Syracuse. Now, Burke is helping his team in other ways but let’s not act like he’s Michigan’s MVP during this run; that’s McGary and there is no debate.
Both Burke and Smith have the unique ability to carry their teams on their respective backs down the stretch. It’ll be interesting to see which one (or both) are doing it in the final three minutes tonight.
Louisville’s 3-point shooting vs. Michigan’s 3-point defense: Louisville is not a great 3-point shooting team. It’s 32.9 percent accuracy is just 216th in the country. Kevin Ware was the team’s best 3-point shooter at 40.5 percent before his gruesome injury. Luke Hancock (37.9 percent) takes over the role. Smith is at 33.3 percent. The only other 3-point shooters – Wayne Blackshear (31.6 percent) and Peyton Siva (29.2 percent) are hardly guys you’re confident in from long range. Of course, based on the win over the Shockers Louisville might have found another clutch shooter in walk-on Tim Henderson.
Michigan’s 3-point defense isn’t great but it’s good enough (32.2 percent) that Louisville is going to have to make some tough, contested threes to help the inside game. If Louisville isn’t hitting close to 33 percent of its triples tonight the Cardinals just won’t win. It might take a 9-for-27 performance but Louisville has to make some deep shots. Michigan’s big job is to challenge as much as possible and clean up the offensive glass.
The Pick: I’ve gone 2-2 with my Michigan picks this postseason (Had South Dakota State +11.5 and Kansas -2 to go with Michigan -4.5 vs. VCU and -2.5 vs. Syracuse). That tells you how tough it has been to read this Michigan team with specific matchups. I’ll say this until I die: In tossup games always go with the team getting points. In the title game that’s Michigan.
Michigan is also 5-0 ATS in the NCAA Tournament. Sometimes it’s not about being the best team in the country but the hottest team (see 2011 Connecticut). Remember, this same Michigan team closed the regular season 1-9 ATS. Louisville, on the other hand, closed the regular season 7-0 ATS but is just 3-2 ATS in the NCAA Tournament.
coachesLVUMI have no idea if Michigan will win this game but I think it’s just as likely to win as Louisville. That’s why I think it’s a no brainer to take Michigan +4. The Wolverines have pretty close to a 50 percent chance to win the game, so take the free points. Michigan very much seems like a team of destiny – then again, we all said the same thing about Michigan State during the Spartans’ run to the title game in Detroit in 2009. Still, Michigan is playing so well right now that a close game seems inevitable. Expect to be sweating until the final buzzer whatever side of the line you play. Just don’t forget to enjoy the game.
NCAA Tournament: 5-8 (it’s been madness, no doubt)
2013 College Hoops Year-to-Date: 69-42-1
2013 Year-to-Date: 77-45-1