Everything about the Final Four lived up to its billing this year. With two exciting contests and some big performances, the stage is set for a tremendous national championship game on Monday night.
Michigan and Louisville proved why they are the two best teams in the nation on Saturday, each fending off terrific opponents in impressive fashion.
The Cardinals were on the ropes for much of the game against Wichita State, but role players came up big when it mattered most. Even with some inconsistency from Russ Smith, the Cardinals were able to best the Shockers in shocking fashion.
Smith didn’t play his best game on Saturday, but he’s been Louisville’s most outstanding player throughout the tournament. Could he be in for another monster performance in the title game?
We’ll break down his prospects for a strong game on Monday night, as well as those of Michigan’s Trey Burke and Mitch McGary. All three have been tremendous at various times in the tournament, but all three are poised for another tremendous outing under the brightest lights of the Big Dance.
*All stats acquired from CBSSports.com.
Sometimes even the brightest stars flicker.
Junior guard Russ Smith has been spectacular throughout the tournament, but he certainly didn’t play up to his full potential on Saturday. With a 6-of-17 performance from the field and a 5-of-12 mark from the charity stripe, Smith could have done a lot more to aid in his team’s second-half comeback against Wichita State.
Not only was Smith inefficient, but he was also careless. With five turnovers and just three assists in 36 minutes, the junior just didn’t seem to have his best stuff.
Don’t expect the same on Monday.
For Louisville to have a chance in this game, Smith has to play with focus and poise. The Cardinals’ best player has come up big so many times in their tournament run, and he’ll make the necessary adjustments in preparation for the Wolverines.
Smith doesn’t have to score 20-plus points to help his team to victory. As long as he takes care of the ball and plays with a little more focus and control, he’ll shine under the bright lights in Atlanta and help the Cardinals to their first championship since 1986.
Inexperience can get the better of even the best players in college basketball.
Sophomore guard Trey Burke has been one of the most impressive players in the tournament, but he’s also disappeared at times. With three games of at least 15 points in the tournament and two games of under 10 points (not to mention a scoreless first half against Kansas), it’s hard to tell what to expect from Burke on a given night.
But like Smith, Burke is his team’s best player. He knows when he has to step up, as he showed in the second half against Kansas in the Sweet 16.
The matchup between Burke and Peyton Siva will be one to keep a close eye on. Siva has gone up against some impressive point guards in Louisville’s first five tournament games, but he hasn’t been faced with a matchup quite like this.
Burke is a tremendous all-around point guard who is as deadly a scorer as he is a strong leader and offensive facilitator, but he’ll be measured by turnovers on Monday.
The Cardinals are extremely aggressive in their full-court pressure, feasting off mistakes that get Smith and Siva in transition for easy buckets.
If Michigan is to come away from this game with a victory, Burke will have to avoid turnovers at all cost. If he coughs it up seven times like he did against VCU, Louisville will run away with this game.
The sophomore had a bad shooting night against Syracuse (1-of-8), but the Orange have shut down a lot of terrific scorers this year. Burke got it out of his system Saturday night, and he’s in for a big performance in the title game.
Michigan’s freshman center has been its most impressive player in the tournament, and it’s really not even close.
Who will lead the game in scoring on Monday?
Mitch McGary has elevated his play to a new level in the Big Dance, averaging 16 points and 11.6 rebounds through five games. The 6’10” big man also recorded six assists against Syracuse’s stifling 2-3 zone and has done a good job taking care of the basketball, limiting his turnovers to two per contest.
Strong guard play often opens things up below the hoop. If Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. play as they are capable, Louisville will have a hard time bottling up Michigan’s best inside presence.
The Cardinals will counter with 6’11” center Gorgui Dieng, who has been very inconsistent at times in the tournament. He failed to find the bottom of the bucket against Wichita State and has recorded double-digit rebounds just once in the Big Dance.
Dieng is talented, but he’ll struggle against Michigan’s freshman big man.
McGary continues to improve with every game, and he’s well on his way to a Most Outstanding Player award. Expect another big performance from him on Monday night.
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