In a matter of hours, the NCAA will crown a new champion in Atlanta, Georgia on the 75th anniversary of the tournament’s beginning. While Kentucky’s reign as National Champion officially comes to an end tonight, a new team will have earned the right to take over where John Calipari and his 2012 squad left off. While both teams deserve to be playing for this honor, only one between John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines and Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals will be left cutting down the nets hanging above the Georgia Dome floor. Many around the blogosphere have proclaimed tonight’s game to be a prototypical clash of styles, and those people would be correct as Michigan brings the the nation’s best offense while Louisville brings the land’s top defense. Maybe you’re one of those people who believes that defense wins championships, or maybe you’re the modern type who thinks offense is the proper way to go, while there’s disagreement, nearly everyone thinks these teams should produce a spectacular championship game tonight.
Over the years, John Beilein has been known for many things throughout the basketball world, but his specialty has become coaching deadly efficient offenses. Dating back to his West Virginia days, Beilein has always led some of the nation’s best scoring attacks, ranking within the national top-25 five times since 2003. However, this year was different for the Wolverines as they have three of the nation’s best all around players in Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Glenn Robinson III. The trio does just about everything for Michigan; they all shoot over 32% from the perimeter, combine for 53.4% shooting in the lane, and turn the ball over less than 2.2 times per game individually. They drive the lane, spread the floor with their perimeter shooting abilities, keep possession of the ball, and rebound appropriately for their size, making them nearly impossible to defend.
Of course, the Wolverines aren’t just a three man show as they’ve depended upon freshmen, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary, throughout the season. While everybody on Michigan’s squad connects on 31% of their perimeter jumpers, Stauskas is their sharpshooter, connecting on 44% of attempts. His defense leaves something to be desired, but his shooting, low turnover rate, and ability to stay out of foul trouble gives Michigan another reliable option on offense. Near the regular season’s end, Mitch McGary looked like a typical freshman big. He wasn’t scoring at a high rate and he wasn’t rebounding in a way that his size would suggest. However, since the tournament began, McGary has been averaging 16 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, which would place him among the nation’s elite bigs. Perhaps his most valuable performance of the tournament came against Syracuse where he dished out six assists from the lane. His interior passing helped sink the Orange’s 2-3 zone and it could potentially stop Louisville’s match-up zone with proper timing.
Louisville enters tonight’s game as a 4-point favorite according to most Vegas bookmakers, and for good reason. Outside of two opponents, the Cardinals have decimated everyone along their path to the national title game. Most believe that Louisville is accomplishing such dominance with defensive pressure, and those people would be correct, however, they haven’t relied as much on pressure recently. Pitino’s squad ranks 2nd nationally in defensive turnover percentage at 27.3%, but in their three most recent games, they’ve only forced turnovers on 17% of possessions. Despite the cornerstone of their defense in a lesser form, they still won those games by an average of 11.3 points, largely on the shoulders of their offense.
Much like the Wolverines, Louisville is guided by three players on offense; Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, and Luke Hancock. The trio’s play in the past number of weeks has been instrumental in their meteoric rise to offensive efficiency, and the proof is in the numbers. During the tournament, they’ve combined to score 215 total points which comes out to 54.4% of Louisville’s total offensive production. Whereas recent seasons have seen Louisville struggle to shoot from outside, Smith and Hancock give Louisville multiple legitimate threats to stretch the defense. In case of an off shooting night, Pitino relies upon two of the nation’s best rebounders in Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan who combine for nearly 16 a game. Louisville is an exceptionally balanced team; they posses great scoring ability and quickness from the guard position, efficient rebounding from their big men, and toughness all over the court.
It’s really anyone’s guess as to who cuts down the nets tonight. Louisville has proven themselves to be better all season long, so it’s understandable to think they’d win. However, Michigan possess the National Player of the Year on their roster, so it’d be easy to see them winning as well. While Louisville, by all accounts, is the better team, Michigan has a piece of historic data on their side. In seven of the past ten seasons, the national title winner has been ranked #1 or #2 in Adjusted Offense according to KenPom.com. While this trinket of information is assuring to Michigan fans (and Kentucky fans for that matter), the three champions who haven’t been ranked #1 or #2 in offense have all hailed from the Big East. It’s anyone’s guess as to who wins, but unfortunately, Louisville is the better team and will likely take home their first title since 1986 tonight.