Louisville is the No. 1 overall seed and was the most picked team at 21.9% to reach the National Championship Game according to the brackets over at ESPN.com. Michigan was the 10th favorite with only 2.7 percent of people picking the Wolverines. The Cardinals opened as 3.5-point favorites in most places and that number has not moved since.
Not many will be able to argue that these teams shouldn’t be here. Louisville obviously can’t be argued, but even the No. 4 seeded Michigan deserves their chance to play in the title game. The Wolverines offense has been unstoppable with help from their entire roster. They beat the top two teams in their region (statistically) and then took out a Syracuse squad that was impossible to score on. As for Louisville, their route was probably easier in the minds of many as they had to face No. 12 Oregon in the Sweet 16 and then No. 9 Wichita State in the Final 4. Still, not many would have been able to beat Duke by 22 points like they did.
The Cardinals are currently on a 15-game winning streak and could be the second straight overall No. 1 seed to win the NCAA Tournament (Kentucky did so last year). They were given problems by Wichita State, but still managed to pull through in the end after being down by 12 points in the second half. With their starters struggling to find any consistency, it was their bench that won them the game. Without Kevin Ware in the lineup, Luke Hancock and Tim Henderson were given bigger roles at the guard spot. Henderson, a walk-on junior guard, only had four three-pointers all season before Saturday when he hit two big threes to keep the score tight. Throughout the year Hancock was only known as long-range shooter, but he took out his game from his George Mason days (where he transferred from) and attacked the rack with success as he finished with 20 points.
Michigan’s win over Syracuse was similarly fueled by some of their lesser known players. Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert came in and played big minutes for the Wolverines. Albrecht only played four minutes, but he made a couple long-range threes that jolted the squad. LeVert ended up playing more than Nik Stauskas as his length was something that helped defensively. All of this was needed because a game removed from his 6-for-6 three-point performance, Stauskas finished with zero points on 0-for-5 shooting from the field.
As for the players everyone knows about, most of them struggled in their Final 4 appearances. Peyton Siva went 1-for-9 from the field while Gorgui Dieng didn’t even score in 30 minutes of play. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. were both largely unsuccessful shooting the ball against the zone as they were a combined 5-for-24. Of course, there were some players that stood out like Russ Smith and his 21 points. He didn’t even have a good game, either. For Michigan, Mitch McGary continued his dominant tourney form and compiled 10 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
Like every other game in the tournament, this one will come down to its matchups, and like every other game for Louisville, the Cardinals will have a slight edge. It will be interesting to see what Dieng will be able to do on McGary, but his length will definitely cause problems. Russ Smith is a feisty on-ball defender that will put pressure on Burke as long as he doesn’t get into foul trouble. Like in previous games for the Wolverines, they’ll be at a disadvantage at the power forward spot with Glenn Robinson III guarding Chane Behanan. Behanan played big minutes late in their Wichita State win and will likely be used against Robinson in the post. For Michigan, they’ll have an advantage with Hardaway Jr. and his 6-6 frame against the smaller Louisville guards. It will definitely be different than having to go over the height of Syracuse.
Louisville has a similar squad to Kansas who Michigan beat back in the Elite 8. But again, they needed to come back from 10 down with two minutes to play with the help of some ridiculous three-pointers. Louisville is a better and more refined version of Kansas. They made it to the Final 4 last year and seemingly got rid of their jitters in the first half against the Shockers. Michigan has been defying every preconceived notion people had about them entering the tournament. McGary has given them a viable big man down low and their defense has picked up the slack. The days of them losing to Penn State are long gone.
Here are some numbers for thought: John Beilein is 15-2 against the spread in his last 17 NCAA Tournament appearances while the favorite has covered 20 of the last 24 in the Championship Game. One of those will have to break in this one. As long as the game stays close (similar to the Final 4 endings), it will be a joy to watch no matter what side you’re on.
Prediction: Louisville wins 74-68