By Colleen Thomas, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 7, 2013
ATLANTA — Just 40 more minutes remain of the college basketball season.
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Michigan (12-6 Big Ten, 31-7 overall) and Louisville (14-4 Big East, 34-5) face off in the National Championship game on Monday night, and unlike the last few opponents, each team has high praises and respect for one another in their respective NCAA Tournament runs.
“Michigan, one day of prep, is very difficult to prepare for,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “On paper you would say this is a young basketball team. But because (Michigan coach John Beilein) has done such a great job molding this team, they play like seniors. You don’t see guys pass, catch and shoot like that. This is a remarkable team the way they share, the way they pass. They don’t play like a young basketball team.”
Beilein says the same thing about Pitino, whom he admires greatly — and it’s well deserved on both sides. Each coach has molded his respective team to playing the nation’s best basketball at just the right time.
The Cardinals are the one of the nation’s best defensive teams, running a full-court press scheme that likes to trap and hound ball handlers into forcing turnovers. Louisville holds opponents to 58.3 points per game this season, and 60.8 points per game during the tournament.
But a great defense is nothing new to Michigan, which boasts one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses. The Wolverines had to go through Virginia Commonwealth’s infamous “Havoc” full-court press, Kansas’ tough interior defense, Florida’s physicality and Syracuse’s 2-3 zone to reach the National Championship game, and have done so by sharing the ball well and getting quality shots.
“What’s really unique is everyone has been very different, even though they’re all good defensive teams,” Beilein said. “VCU is an animal of its own with the way they continue to apply pressure to you. It’s different than Florida’s. I hope we can do one more, just one more game where we can put 60-to-70 points up there in these games. We could have a ‘W’ if we can put up those number of points.”
That shouldn’t be too big of a concern for the Wolverines. Michigan has the National Player of the Year in sophomore point guard Trey Burke and a slew of capable ball handlers, including backup point guard Spike Albrecht, that slit through VCU’s press and handled Florida’s on-ball pressure. The Wolverines are also the best team in the nation in protecting the ball, committing just 9.4 turnovers per game.
“We have two great point guards, Spike (Albrecht) and Trey (Burke), and they will be ready to handle that press,” said freshman forward Glenn Robinson III. “It’s just important for us to get them outlets and flash in the middle when they need it. Just try to limit our turnovers.”
So the matchup to look for will be in the backcourt. The Cardinals’ duo of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith have held opposing guards — like Duke’s Seth Curry and Wichita State’s Malcolm Armstead — to single-digit scoring while exploding for 20-plus points of their own.
Burke hasn’t put up the numbers that he’s capable of in recent games — the sophomore had just seven points on Saturday against Syracuse and took a backseat in the offense in the second half of the Wolverines’ Elite Eight game against Florida — but Michigan isn’t concerned if Burke isn’t scoring like he’s used to.
Junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. noted that playing in the Big Ten has prepared the Wolverines for situations where Burke is faced with tough backcourt defense or a cold shooting night.
“It helps when you have guards and wings in the Big Ten that play defense like they do,” Hardaway said. “(Ohio State junior) Aaron Craft and (Indiana junior) Victor Oladipo, for example, they do a great job just getting to you and try to make you turn the ball over.”
And it will also be a physical matchup in the post. Freshman forward Mitch McGary is arguably the hottest player in the tournament right now, averaging 16 points and 11 rebounds per game while shooting 70-percent clip. He’s battled past Kansas’ Jeffy Withey and helped the Wolverines crack Syracuse’s zone with his mid-range jump shot and team-high six assists.
He’s matched up against Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng, who struggled against Wichita State’s lanky, rebound-happy forwards and didn’t score a point. Though Dieng has much more experience against strong, physical forwards, McGary has shown immense improvement over the course of the tournament, which Pitino thinks has made him “one of the premiere big guys in our country.”
“I have a lot of respect for him,” Dieng said. “He’s a good basketball player. If it gets to the point that experience is gong to separate us, I am willing to do my best to stop him and protect the paint.”
But no matter the matchup or advantage either team could have, the players are just looking forward to playing their last 40 minutes of basketball of the season.
“It’s going to be a hard-fought 40 minutes,” Burke said. “There’s going to be skill involved in the matchup, but a lot of it is going to be desire and will. It will come down to a battle of will.”