Sixty-six teams have come and gone, and one final matchup remains to crown an NCAA tournament champion.
The path to Atlanta was littered with upsets, upstarts and exciting finishes, but one constant held true: Louisville is No. 1, and the Cardinals aren’t going down without a fight.
Rick Pitino’s squad traversed a minefield of uncertainty that has claimed 66 victims. The 67th will be determined in a colossal clash on Monday night.
The No. 4 Michigan Wolverines can’t be counted out, though.
With an offense that features the best player in the country, a freshman big man coming into his own and a bevy of talented perimeter scorers, Michigan won’t make the final championship obstacle an easy one.
Which team will be crowned national champion on April 8? We’ll break it down with some predictions of our own.
*All stats acquired from CBSSports.com. Betting lines acquired from VegasInsider.com.
Trey Burke Will Struggle With Turnovers
VCU’s "Havoc" defense certainly created plenty of it for Michigan’s backcourt. Despite thrashing the Rams by 25 points, sophomore guard Trey Burke struggled to take care of the basketball, turning it over seven times in that contest.
Louisville is an elite defensive team that loves to apply full-court pressure. Wichita State handled it extremely well, but it will take a lot of Michigan to duplicate those results. As talented as Burke is with the ball in his hands, he will struggle against the Cardinals’ pressure.
I still think Burke can have a good offensive night, but Louisville won’t make it easy getting to the half court. Turnovers will be plentiful.
Production prediction: 18 points, five assists, six turnovers
Russ Smith’s Road to Redemption
Louisville’s best scorer didn’t play like it in the Final Four.
Junior guard Russ Smith scored 21 points in Louisville’s win over Wichita State, but he did it on 6-of-17 shooting from the floor and 5-of-12 from the free-throw line. He’s been spectacular throughout the tournament, but his inefficiency almost cost the Cardinals the game on Saturday.
To take nothing away from the Shockers, Michigan isn’t going to be beaten with inefficient shooting like Smith displayed in the Final Four.
Still, Smith shot 50 percent or better from the floor in each of Louisville’s first four tournament games, and he’s experienced enough to know how to put games like that behind him. He has tendencies to make careless errors, but this is the national championship game.
Expect Smith to be focused and prepared.
Production prediction: 24 points, four assists, three turnovers, 8-of-15 from the field
Don’t Call it a Comeback
Michigan is primed to come out firing in this contest. After dispatching Syracuse’s stifling 2-3 zone in the Final Four, the Wolverines are going to be prepared for another great defense in Atlanta.
Like the first half against Wichita State, Louisville will start sluggish on Monday. Against a team as potent as Michigan, the Cardinals will have a hard time adjusting in the half court if the Wolverines can break full-court pressure without turning it over too often.
But like we’ve also seen several times in the tournament (particularly against Duke), Louisville can get very, very hot in a hurry. No lead will be safe, especially if Smith can keep his ugly misses to a minimum and Peyton Siva steps into his role as a complementary scorer.
Look for Michigan to take a sizeable lead into the locker room and see it dissipate in the first few minutes of the second half.
Halftime prediction: Michigan 37, Louisville 29
Get Your Scissors, Rick Pitino
As talented as the Wolverines are, there’s a reason Louisville is a four-point favorite in the championship. The Cardinals haven’t lost a game since February 9, and they won’t break that streak on Monday.
Who will lead the championship game in scoring?
Michigan deserves a ton of credit for its incredible tournament run, but Louisville is just a team that has it all this year. The Cardinals’ defense is one of the best in the last decade, and their offense is extremely balanced with Smith, Siva and Gorgui Dieng playing an inside-out game that is a nightmare to defend.
And then there’s coaching.
John Beilein is an excellent coach, and his team’s presence in the championship game is proof of that. He just has to go head-to-head with one of the best coaches in all of basketball.
Rick Pitino earned a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with a career that is unmatched by many college coaches. He’s a master of making adjustments, and the bond he shares with his players is evident with every game.
Pitino gets the edge in this coaching matchup and not because Beilein isn’t an exceptional coach.
Prediction: Louisville 76, Michigan 74
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