More than five months of hard work, close games and big wins have transported these teams to the biggest game of the college basketball year.
Championship games over the 75-year history of the tournament have produced numerous improbable heroes and unlikely stars. But more often than not, the best players on the two competing teams control who ends up winning it all.
Let’s take a quick look at the six players who have the best chance of determining the outcome of this year’s championship game.
Russ Smith has been a scoring machine in this year's NCAA tournament.
ESPN reported that Smith:
...becomes the first player since Shane Battier and Jason Williams in 2001—and just the eighth since the tournament expanded in 1985—to record at least 20 points in each of the first five tournament games for a team that played for the national title.
Nice to be hanging out with those college basketball greats.
Smith's ability to get into the lane is critical to the Cardinals' success, as he is shooting 65 percent at the rim (via Hoop-math.com).
When you couple that with his 80.6 percent from the free-throw line and 52 attempts during March Madness, you can see why Louisville coach Rick Pitino wants “Russdiculous” to do his thing come Monday night in the Georgia Dome.
Tim Hardaway Jr. started off the NCAA tournament on fire. The 6’6” junior dropped 21 points (5-of-7 from beyond the arc) on South Dakota State in Michigan’s opening game.
Since then, his production and shooting percentages have gradually fallen off. Though he had 13 points in the Wolverines’ national semifinal victory over Syracuse, Hardaway Jr. shot just 4-of-16 from the field, including 3-of-10 from three.
To his credit, Hardaway Jr. has been finding open teammates and getting the ball to them in scoring position. He has dished out 10 assists in the last two tourney games.
Where the long, athletic shooting guard could make a huge impact in the championship game is on defense. There is a good chance that he is going to be matched up against Louisville’s top scorer, Russ Smith.
Hardaway Jr. has all the necessary tools to be a lockdown defender. Against Smith, over whom he would have a five-inch height advantage, he could leverage his length to make things very challenging.
NBA scouts know of Hardaway Jr.’s scoring capabilities. They will be paying close attention to see whether or not he steps up on defense in such a big game.
Gorgui Dieng is the prototypical Rick Pitino big man: an extremely long, exceptionally athletic, intimidating shot-blocker who also ravages the boards on both ends. Dieng’s ability to protect the rim allows Louisville’s perimeter defenders to apply agonizing pressure on the ball without worrying about whether or not they get beat.
Up until the Cardinals' national semifinal victory over Wichita State, the 6’11” junior was having an outstanding NCAA tournament.
Against the Shockers, Dieng got in foul trouble, which limited his aggressiveness and completely disrupted his style of play. He was held scoreless for the second time in his collegiate career while grabbing only six rebounds and blocking two shots.
Do not expect Dieng’s substandard performance against WSU to continue. Look for him to patrol the paint with an added edge on Monday night.
One of the most astonishing developments in the 2013 NCAA tournament is the improved interior play of Michigan’s Mitch McGary.
Up until March Madness, McGary had played inconsistently, averaging around six points and six rebounds per game during the regular season.
In the Wolverines’ five tournament contests, the 6’10” power forward has been nothing short of amazing, scoring 16 points and grabbing almost 12 rebounds per game.
In Michigan’s first 33 games, McGary put up two double-double performances. Since Selection Sunday, he has three more in five games.
His forceful style of play has turned him from being a listless role player to being a dynamic force in the middle of Michigan’s lineup.
His head-to-head showdown with Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng will definitely have major implications on who cuts down the nets in Atlanta.
One of the biggest questions going into Monday’s NCAA championship game is, “Which Peyton Siva is going to take the court in Atlanta?”
Will it be Louisville’s confident point guard who was only the second Big East player to be named the tournament MVP in consecutive seasons (along with Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing)?
Or will it be the erratic, poor-shooting leader who is only connecting on 36 percent of his shots from the field and 8.3 percent (1-of-12) from beyond the arc in March Madness?
Siva is rarely a big-time scorer, but his persistent slashing and dishing sets most of the Louisville offensive attack in motion. So, when he is settling for jump shots or merely reversing the ball, Siva is minimizing his influence on the offensive end of the court.
Where the 6’0” senior could have a huge impact is on defense. Siva relentlessly annoys anyone he guards, and he said “the best defensive team will win.”
We will have to see if Siva matches up against Wooden Award winner Trey Burke. If he does, we could be in for one of the best one-on-one duels of the season in the most important game of the year.
Because of the injury to Kevin Ware, Siva has that much more on him in terms of shutting down the Michigan perimeter unit.
Trey Burke has the chance to finish the 2012-13 season by adding the national championship to his haul of national Player of the Year honors, which now includes the AP, Wooden and Oscar Robertson Awards.
When he takes the court inside the Georgia Dome, Burke will have the biggest opportunity of any player on either team to lead his team to victory.
Known as a scoring point guard, Burke is a skilled distributor who effectively delivers the ball to his teammates where they can do the most damage.
Burke has not had a good shooting tournament. In the five games leading up to Monday, the 6’0” sophomore is shooting a combined 23-of-71 (32.3 percent) from the field and 8-of-31 (25.8 percent) from beyond the arc. Both of those are significantly below his season shooting numbers.
But Burke has been brilliant in stretches. He was scoreless in the first half against Kansas, but after the break he scored 23 points (in the second half and overtime period) and handed out 10 assists.
This is not a one-man Wolverines team, but a big game from Bruke would be very helpful.