Breakdown: Michigan and Louisville face off for the Championship

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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 7, 2013

In week 10 of the season, Michigan and Louisville were each ranked in the AP Poll’s top three. Three weeks later, with the Wolverines positioned atop the polls, the Cardinals had fallen all the way to No. 12.

By time the NCAA Tournament kicked off two months later, those roles were flipped, with Louisville as the bracket’s top overall seed and Michigan as a No. 4 seed, falling somewhere in the No. 13-16 range. None of that matters anymore, as the Wolverines and Cardinals, the nation’s last two teams standing, will battle it out on Monday night for the National Championship.

The Daily breaks down Monday’s matchups.

Point guard: Perhaps the only point guard that has a real advantage over sophomore Trey Burke, Aaron Craft, will be watching the title game in Columbus, nearly 600 miles from Atlanta. But with that being said, Louisville’s Peyton Siva is no slouch.

The senior is making his second career Final Four appearance, and despite sometimes erratic decision making, he’s paced the Cardinals through a grinding Big East season, leading them to conference regular season and tournament crowns.

Burke, on the other hand, displayed consistency like no player anywhere in the country on his way to being a consensus National Player of the Year recipient. But in the tournament, he’s looked less than stellar at times.

Both players struggled in Saturday-night victories. Siva shot 1-of-9 from the field and has hit just one 3-pointer in the tournament, while Burke was limited to seven points on 1-of-8 shooting.

Despite Siva’s experience though, Burke has proven all year that his play shines the most when the lights are brightest.

Edge: Michigan

Wings: Guard Russ Smith has the capability of torching Michigan single-handedly. On the flip side, the junior has the ability of shooting his team out of a ball game, earning him the nickname, “Russ-diculous,” from his coach, Rick Pitino.

The high-volume shooter is averaging 25 points in the tournament but has been shaky from long range.

Guard-forward Wayne Blackshear and forward Chane Behanan each provide Louisville with solid length on defensive, but on offense, their contributions are often overlooked. The Cardinals’ depth took a major blow when guard Kevin Ware went down with a gruesome injury last week in Indianapolis. Though Ware has provided Louisville with plenty of motivation, the Cardinals certainly have to be wary of getting into foul trouble. Pitino said on Saturday, his team was “afraid to foul” and was playing “very cautious.”

On the other sideline, junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. has done his best “Russ-diculous” impression. Hardaway’s 3-for-13 night against Florida helped the Gators threaten to put a serious dent into Michigan’s lead, and his team-high 13 points on Saturday were the product of 16 shots, 12 of which clanked out.

Freshman forward Glenn Robinson III should provide some offense, but he’ll again face a physical mismatch on the defensive end. He’ll likely be guarding Behanan, and though the two forwards are each 6-foot-6, Robinson is 40 pounds lighter.

The game’s x-factor may be freshman guard Nik Stauskas. What the freshman gives up on defense, he can more than make up on offense with his potentially lethal 3-point shooting. Stauskas was held scoreless on Saturday — he said he was suffering through a migraine — but broke open Michigan’s regional final game open by knocking down six 3-pointers. If he shoots anywhere close to that mark, the Wolverines may run away with things.

While Michigan’s wings may have the higher upside — if they’re hot, watch out — Louisville’s wings possess more consistency, while Smith has been one of the tournament’s top scorers.

Edge: Louisville

Post: Pitino said on Sunday that his center, Gorgui Dieng, will likely declare for the NBA at some point after the title game. And while Dieng, one of the nation’s top defensive post players all season, has had his sights on the draft for a while, freshman forward Mitch McGary’s draft stock was a non-factor just four weeks ago.

But after being inserted into the starting lineup at the onset of the NCAA Tournament, McGary has registered 16 points and nearly 12 rebounds per game, suddenly displaying formidable lottery-pick talent.

Dieng was held scoreless after spending most of Saturday night in foul trouble, but posted 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks against Duke’s vaunted frontcourt in Louisville’s regional final win.

Dieng has the experience, but he hasn’t faced a player who can run, pass and shoot like McGary — the tournament’s hottest player — all season.

Edge: Michigan

Bench: Neither team has a consistent scorer off its bench, which may mean that whichever teams’ reserves can come through may tilt the scales in its favor.

This was never more prevalent than on Saturday. With Siva and Dieng struggling mightily, guard-forward Luke Hancock, who averages seven points per game, came off the pine to score 20 points thanks in large part to three 3-pointers. Still, the absence of Ware shortens the Cardinals’ bench immensely.

While Michigan’s starting scorers were cold, freshman guards Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht each delivered two critical 3-pointers as the Wolverine bench provided 22 points in the win. Redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan’s stat sheet has been bare recently, but the three-year starter has played in more career games than almost anyone in the contest.

With a healthy Ware, Louisville likely had the advantage, but the Wolverines have more options at the moment.

Edge: Michigan

Coaching: Pitino found out earlier this week that, according to reports, he’s headed to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He’s appearing in his seventh career Final Four — with his third different team, nonetheless — and has a previous National Championship on his résumé. The Louisville coach has eight years of NBA head-coaching experience, and this season is his 27th as a collegiate headman.

Still, Pitino said Michigan’s offense under coach John Beilein is as difficult as any he’s ever had to prepare for in a one-day turnaround scenario.

Beilein was brought to Ann Arbor to take his X’s-and-O’s wizardry and combine it with elite talent. Thus far, it’s worked, as he’s captured a Big Ten Championship and in this year’s postseason, blown through defenses like VCU and Florida that were supposed to stifle Michigan.

Louisville will likely attempt to pressure the Wolverines, but Beilein should have an effective plan in place to counter it. Besides, Michigan has excelled in up-tempo games all year long.

Pitino has the wealth of big-game experience, but Beilein is as good, or better, than anyone at in-game coaching.

Edge: Push

Intangibles: It takes a special story for the nation to rally behind the favorite in favor of the underdog. The tragic injury to Ware is that story that captured even the non-sports fan’s attention. But with the sophomore looking on from the sidelines, metal rods holding his leg together, Louisville struggled out of the gate and for much of the game, needing a valiant, come-from-behind effort to knock off an inferiorly-talented Wichita State squad. Instead of looking like a team rallying behind Ware, the Cardinals played tentatively in his absence.

Michigan, on the other hand, bounced back from several heart-breaking regular-season losses and finally appears to have karma on its side. There was the buzzer-beater at Wisconsin, Burke’s in-and-out shot at Ohio State and Morgan’s tip-in that rolled around the length of the bucket before falling out to blow a Big Ten Championship against Indiana. That all culminated with Burke drilling a 30-footer to send the Wolverines into overtime against Kansas, a game they eventually won.

Several Michigan players said destiny is on their side and whether or not that’s true, they’ve certainly played like it ever since.

Edge: Michigan

Louisville is one of the few teams that can match-up with Michigan talent-wise, but National Championship games rarely come down to talent alone. Each team is littered with future-NBA players, but in the biggest stages, it’s often the best player that leads his team to victory.

After a sluggish outing on Saturday, Burke — the best player on either team — is due for one final signature performance before he takes off his maize-and-blue jersey for one final time.

Final score: Michigan 77, Louisville 69