It took nearly a month for the madness to whittle a stacked field of 68 teams down to just two and today those two will leave all the hard work of the 2012-2013 season out on the floor, as they play for the nation’s top annual prize – NCAA college basketball’s National Championship.
After witnessing a month of premier postseason college hoops, most fans and bettors would agree that we’ve been left with the two most deserving schools.
The Louisville Cardinals showed us why they were named the No. 1 overall seed before tournament play began, as they mowed through four tough opponents, before rallying to beat Wichita State in the national semifinal without one of their key players on the floor.
Then there’s the Michigan Wolverines, a team that has boasted the most impressive offensive game of any team in the field. They also happen to have the nation’s best overall player, Trey Burke, who won the AP Player of the Year and John Wooden Award honors last week.
Burke has led his Wolverines to plenty of spectacular offensive performances during the tourney, but Michigan and its leader were not at their best in the win against Syracuse in the other semifinal, netting just 61 points against the stout zone and formidable length of the Orange. Although Louisville doesn’t have the same type of personnel on defense, there’s no doubt that the Orange may have left a blueprint to beat Michigan behind for the Cardinals to follow.
Louisville may not be as good at blocking and contesting shots on the perimeter as a Syracuse, but the Cardinals have another strength on the defensive side of the ball with their relentless full-court pressure and sticky traps. Louisville came into the tournament leading the nation in turnovers forced and it’s been no surprise that they’ve led the tournament field in that category as well.
However, when the Wolverines played against a similarly effective press team – the VCU Rams – earlier during the tournament, their quick and agile guards proved they can beat the traps and turn in quick buckets. When Louisville’s gamble-style defense works, it creates big offense in transition, but when it gets beat, it allows a team easy looks. No one has been able to beat the Cardinals’ traps yet, but if there’s one team that can do, it’s probably Michigan.
Burke, who is just a sophomore, has earned all the accolades he has received this postseason, not because of his stellar individual numbers – though they certainly helped – but because of his intangible leadership qualities. He’s the type of players that knows when to distribute the ball and when to take it himself and those are the kind of instincts you need to beat Louisville’s pressure.
Both teams can score the ball almost at will, but since much of Louisville’s offensive is predicated on its ability to turn opponents over, it may have more trouble finding easy shots against Michigan’s hard-nosed interior. Meanwhile, if Michigan can beat the press, it will get plenty of lay-ins, and even if it can’t, the Wolverines have shown they can hang in a game with solid perimeter shooting.
I haven’t gone against the Cardinals in any game they’ve played during the tournament, but as they say, there’s a first time for everything. Louisville might be the better overall team, but in this particular match-up, I like Michigan. Take the Wolverines to cover +4 today and win the 2013 NCAA National Championship.