The Cardinals will have a number of advantages over Michigan come Monday night's title game.
Monday’s national championship game is exactly what college hoops fans had hoped for: the nation’s most potent offense matched up against the country’s most aggressive and stingy defense.
One would think that in order for Louisville to win, it would need to control the pace and force turnovers, two staples of Rick Pitino's program.
However, against Michigan, both of those strategies could be irrelevant. The Wolverines rarely turn the ball over (as evidenced in the wins over Florida and Syracuse), and if any team can match the Cardinals’ agility, it’s Michigan.
So, aside from the obvious “force turnovers,” we break down where the Cardinals should attack on the offensive end, where they need to focus their efforts on the defensive end and which players need to step up in order for Louisville to win its third national championship.
Michigan’s biggest weakness all season has been its interior size, and fortunately for the Cardinals, they match up extremely well with the Wolverines in the frontcourt.
Mitch McGary deserves all the praise he’s received, as his effort in the tournament has been nothing short of monumental. Were it not for him, Michigan may not have beaten VCU and certainly not Kansas. That said, Louisville has a significant advantage down low.
Gorgui Dieng is mobile enough to cover McGary (and limit him on the glass), Chane Behanan can be a rebounding force as long as the effort is there, and the Wolverines have no answer for Montrezl Harrell coming off the Cardinals bench. Dieng played one of his worst games of the season against the Shockers; don’t expect him to be held scoreless again.
The best Michigan can do for a second post player is Glenn Robinson III, who at 6’6’’, 210 pounds, isn’t tall nor strong enough to contend with the Cardinals’ superior depth. Backup forward Jordan Morgan is an option, but he's nowhere near quick enough to hang with Behanan or Harrell.
Wichita State had the size to compete with Louisville up front and gave the Cardinals a battle. But frankly, Michigan does not. McGary is often prone to foul trouble, and should coach John Beilein be forced to sit him, Louisville will have a massive advantage inside. The Cardinals shoot more than 50 percent from inside the arc—expect that as a minimum on Monday, and expect a ton of trips to the foul line for Louisville.
On the surface, that could appear very similar to the last slide, but this one refers to guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith’s willingness to attack off dribble penetration.
Both are excellent facilitators who can draw a defense’s attention and kick it out to the perimeter, feed it down low or drive and get fouled. But versus Wichita State, it wasn’t until late in the second half that they resorted to what made them so good all year: attacking.
Against the Shockers, both struggled from the field, shooting a combined 7-of-26, including 4-of-16 from three-point range. That’s more than double the three-point attempts the two averaged per game throughout the season (7.7).
In general, the Cardinals are an average three-point shooting team (32.9 percent on the year). Were it not for some surprise outside production, the team's 25 attempts versus Wichita State would've buried them.
The point is that shooting three-pointers completely negates Louisville’s quickness. In essence, it’s exactly what defenses want Siva and Smith to do. They’re both so good at beating their opponent and forcing the issue in the lane that it will put stress on Michigan’s guards and open up drive-and-dish situations for Louisville’s big men.
The matchup the Cardinals will look to exploit will be Smith vs. Nik Stauskas or Tim Hardaway Jr., neither of which are quick enough to contain their high-scoring guard. Stauskas is more of a liability on defense, and if he struggles (as he did against Syracuse), it could force Beilein to take out his best three-point shooter.
Aside from all the intriguing aspects to Monday’s game—including the elite guard play, expected pace and athleticism of both squads—Monday’s game could very well be decided by the reserves.
Which unheralded player will step up? Louisville's Tim Henderson and Michigan's Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert all played huge roles in their respective semifinal wins.
It cannot be overstated how important guys like Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Henderson are to Louisville’s chances on Monday night. Michigan has gotten some substantial contributions from its reserves as of late, and due to foul trouble, either bench could be vital.
The Kevin Ware injury is devastating on an emotional level, but it also impacts Rick Pitino’s rotation. Henderson, a walk-on who rarely plays, hit two clutch three-pointers as Wichita State was pulling away from Louisville in the second half.
Harrell was instrumental in combatting the Shockers’ size and had a number of early buckets deep inside the paint. He cleaned up the glass much the same way he sparked the Cardinals’ second-half run against Syracuse in the Big East tournament final. He’s active and relentless and adds another layer of frontcourt depth that Michigan simply doesn’t have.
As far as Hancock goes, all the George Mason transfer did was save Louisville’s season. He’s their best outside threat (40 percent), and against the Shockers he recognized the need to attack the lane, finishing with impressive dexterity from both sides of the basket.
Hancock is a reserve by name only, but if Siva or Smith struggle with foul trouble, he’s Pitino’s best ball-handling option, which is scary to say.
Three-point shooting is an integral part of how the Wolverines operate.
Whether it’s Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas or Tim Hardaway Jr. lining up from deep, all have gone on white-hot stretches capable of quickly erasing double-digit leads.
Louisville is one of the best in the country at defending the three-point line, holding opponents to just 31.5 percent on the season. In its last three games, the Cardinals have held opponents to just 15-of-50 from beyond the line, including Duke, which was seventh in the country from deep.
They have decent length on the perimeter, but more importantly, they close out quickly and rarely let teams get good looks. Michigan thrives on pick-and-rolls and often relies on high screens to free up its shooters. How well Louisville switches or slides above screens on the perimeter could alter Michigan’s best scoring weapon.
After willing his team past Kansas with a 23-point, 10-assist performance (the first player to notch at least 20 points and 10 assists in a Sweet 16 game since Billy Donovan back in 1987), Trey Burke was absolutely stymied by Syracuse’s zone.
That’s both good and bad for the Cardinals. It’s good since he has little momentum going into the biggest game of his career, but it’s also bad because he’s due to break out.
With averages of 18.8 points and 6.8 assists a game, Burke is the recent recipient of the John Wooden Award and Oscar Robertson Trophy for a reason. He’s an outstanding ball-handler who rarely turns it over (why the Cardinals’ pressure may not be a factor), but he’s also a generous teammate, careful to feed his role players as much as he looks to score.
Peyton Siva will likely get the assignment thanks to his quickness and uncanny anticipation. This could be an issue for Siva, who often gets himself into foul trouble. Louisville can ill afford foul trouble for either one of its backcourt ball-handlers.