Men's NCAA National Championship Game Breakdown
Louisville, the tournament’s number one overall seed, kept up their side of the bargain by making it to the final game…but it wasn’t easy. The Cardinals needed a late-game rally to come back from a double-digit, second half deficit to overtake the Wichita State Shockers. Led by Luke Hancock, the Louisville bench helped pick up the lack of scoring from the starters. Gorgui Dieng finished with zero points; Russ Smith and Peyton Siva had trouble penetrating and combined to go just 7 for 26 from the floor. But, in the end, it was enough. Louisville does the best job of any team in the country at winning when their offense sputters. The odd thing about this contest was that their defense was sputtering too for much of the middle of the game. Wichita State was refusing to turn the basketball over, which is how Louisville thrives. But their run of holding onto the ball ended at the most inopportune of times. Near the finish, much like the Ohio State game and even the Gonzaga game, WSU let their big lead slip away; they played with fire one too many times. Cleanthony Early was magnificent; however, Malcolm Armstead was not and Louisville hit just enough free throws to escape with the W.
In the other national semifinal, Syracuse ran into perhaps the worst matchup for them possible. They had run through, rather impressively, if not effortlessly, every opponent they faced on their way to the Final Four. However, in Atlanta, Michigan came calling; a team that is led by a fantastic point guard, gets buckets in transition before the zone gets set, takes care of the ball, shoots well from the outside, can grab a bunch of offensive rebounds, and has a couple big men they can float to the foul line to pick apart the zone with inside passes. Michigan did everything well that a team would want to do to beat a 2-3 zone. We knew this was a possibility coming into the game. The key would be execution. Well, the Wolverines executed their game plan just fine and sent the Orange back to their locker room disgruntled…then the two teams played the second half.
Half number two was a different story. Trey Burke struggled mightily to get past the length of the zone; Michigan shot much more poorly from the outside; Mitch McGary got into some early foul trouble; and CJ Fair was able to get whatever he wanted on offense for the Orange. Of course, college-aged kids and the basketball gods do not care about stories and momentum or a final Big East matchup between Louisville and Syracuse. So obviously Michigan held on to win anyways even though they were outscored in the second half. The game essentially ended on a somewhat puzzling final offensive possession for the Orange with their starting backcourt watching from the sidelines, having fouled out.
And so, through the carnage, with neither semifinal winner looking pretty, we are left with a National Championship contest that will see the top-seeded Louisville Cardinals take on the four seed Michigan Wolverines.
Michigan faced “alternate defense exhibit A” in the zone of Syracuse. They will face “alternate defense exhibit B” next with the full-court press of Louisville. Again, against such a defense, a lot depends on the play of the point guard. Trey Burke was unusually bad against Syracuse. He couldn’t get any quality shots off; he failed in every attempt to penetrate into the paint. However, much like the VCU game a few rounds back, facing a full-court press may be more in line with his strengths. If Michigan’s performance against the VCU Rams back in the third round is any indication of how they will perform against Louisville, Cardinals fans should be worried. Along with Burke, the other guards (Hardaway, LeVert and Spike Albrecht) will be capable of breaking down a press and getting the offense into scoring opportunities.
If that is the case and Michigan is able to execute against what Louisville throws at them, the game result will depend on the opposite: how Louisville will perform on offense. This is a worrisome proposition for Coach Pitino and the Cardinals because they never like to rely on their scoring to win ballgames. With the exception of Chane Behanan, the entire starting five was pretty gruesome against Wichita State. There is no way to expect another top-notch performance from the bench guys either. Other than Hancock, neither Henderson nor Harrell are used to playing major minutes and contributing nightly.
Trey Burke putting his Final Four performance behind him and Michigan taking advantage of Louisville’s press like they did to VCU is no given. If it happens though, Peyton Siva and company struggle to win with their offense and Michigan will cut the nets down as National Champion. Not to say it will come easy. Nothing has looked easy for either of these two teams recently. Whether it be mounting comebacks or holding off rallies, winning the NCAA Tournament means winning ugly.