Louisville and Michigan were both highly regarded teams when the college basketball season began back in November, and in a year that’s seen wild fluctuations in the college hoops stock market, so to speak, it’s going to end with two of the early favorites playing for the national championship on Monday night (9:23 PM ET, CBS).
Plucky Wichita did almost everything they had to do to beat the Cardinals in Saturday’s first semi-final. They shot 40 percent from the floor—while that’s hardly lighting it up, it’s about as good as you can expect against the Louisville defense. They played pretty good defense themselves, they enjoyed a slight rebounding edge, and forwards Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall combined to exceed their composite season averages in points and rebounds. Early in particular was outstanding, with a 24/10 night.
But the Shockers couldn’t drain the three-ball, going 6-of-20 from behind the arc, and that was the weapon that Louisville used to get back in the game when they trailed by 11 midway through the second half and had the crowd in Atlanta smelling upset. Reserve guard Tim Henderson hit a pair of huge treys, Luke Hancock drained three more and the Cards survived with a 72-68 win.
Michigan came out against Syracuse like a team prepared to attack the Orange’s fabled zone defense. The Wolverines didn’t waste time with useless passes around the perimeter. They willingly let it fly from downtown, crashed the gaps in the zone to get to the offensive boards and in general looked like a team that knew what it wanted to do with the basketball. A big thumbs-up to head coach John Beilein for his preparation—I’m not saying Beilein outcoached Jim Boeheim, but if each team came in equally prepared, it was the Wolverines who had more raw talent.
If you were looking an exciting game, Michigan’s 61-56 win qualified. If you wanted to watch stars play like stars…well, you would have had to look elsewhere. Trey Burke shot 1-for-8 and only scored seven points for Michigan. Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams only had two points and one of the nation’s best passers only had two assists. Wolverine balance survived 22 points from Orange forward C.J. Fair.
Each of Saturday’s games was marked by some officiating controversy. Wichita rebounded a missed Louisville free throw with less than ten seconds to play and trailing 71-68. A held ball was called as the Shockers’ Todd Baker tried to get in transition. It looked to me like the officials got this one right, although it fell in that gray area of “do you call it at this point in the game.” I generally think that when that’s the only basis for criticizing the ref, the zebras probably did the right thing.
Syracuse trailed Michigan 58-56 when Brandon Triche drove the lane for the tying layup and was called for a charge. This was one was much closer. It appeared to me that Michigan’s Jordan Morgan was there in time and the call was correct. But it was very close. The bigger issue is whether there needs to be a rule change. Defensive players should have to be planted much sooner than they are to earn the charge. Otherwise, call it a block—or even better, just let play roll on. I’m not sure when we decided that every time two bodies make contact a foul has to be called. Either way though, I’ve seen that kind of play called a charge all year. I understand where Syracuse is frustrated, but I think the call was probably right.
Now it’s down to Louisville-Michigan. The Cardinals are the #1 overall seed in this tournament and are favored by 3 ½ points coming into the title fight. I like the Wolverines though. I feel like Burke and Tim Hardway Jr. can handle the Louisville pressure and create some easy baskets for themselves in transition. I like the way the UM defense matches up against Louisville’s smallish guards.
If Louisville is going to win, they’ve got to get a better performance from center Gorgui Deng. The 6’11” post player is the Cards’ one big matchup advantage in this game. Michigan has no answer for him if he plays well. But on Saturday, Deng had no points and six rebounds. Even his season-long averages of 11/10 won’t be enough. If the center goes for a 17/12 type of game, Louisville will win.
The Cards can also feel good about Michigan’s inability at the foul line—the Wolverines lost the Big Ten title during the regular season because of missed free throws against Indiana, and they nearly lost on Saturday to Syracuse. I won’t feel good about my pick if Michigan’s victory comes down to needing to hit five of six from the stripe in the closing minute.
It goes to show that I’ve gotten used to be wrong in the college basketball coverage during the NCAA Tournament, that I’ve already outlined the scenario. But I’m just trying to think through all angles. In reality, I think Michigan has the best talent, I don’t see Louisville doing anything tactically that the Wolverines can’t handle, and Michigan has the personnel to handle what the Cards do best. This is the second time in seven months that fans in the general Detroit market have seen one of their teams compete for a championship. After the World Series disappointment, they’ll get a chance to celebrate Monday night in Atlanta.