With apologies to the fine people of Wichita State and Syracuse, this is the kind of national championship game we all should have wanted in the first place: Louisville and the nation's best defense vs. Michigan and the nation's best offense; two of college basketball's most exciting guards, Russ Smith and Trey Burke; and the breakout player of the NCAA tournament, Mitch McGary.
Both teams have been sloppy at times, but nobody has been perfect in the 2013 college basketball season, and at their peaks these two are as deserving as any and as entertaining as any.
Neither team played great basketball in the semifinals on Saturday -- Louisville starters Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Wayne Blackshear combined to make one shot against Wichita State; Michigan's guards also shot poorly against Syracuse --but they still did enough to win, setting up what looks like a great matchup on paper between teams that have clashing styles (a great offense vs. a great defense) but also obvious similarities (excellent guard play).
Why Michigan will win: Burke is unquestionably the stud on the Michigan roster and can get hot at any moment -- see the second half against Kansas after he got shut out in the first -- but it's McGary who has propelled the team to another level despite starting only a couple games and scoring in double figures only seven times before the NCAA tournament. He's scored at least 10 in all five tournament games, including 21 against VCU and 25 against Jeff Withey and Kansas, and he has at least nine rebounds in every game, including 14 in each of those two games. Against Syracuse, he even added six assists and two blocks.
Michigan's interior defense isn't great, but the Wolverines can get by against Louisville, especially if Gorgui Dieng (0 points against Wichita State) struggles again. All season, Dieng would have had the edge in this matchup, but that's not necessarily true anymore.
McGary's meteoric rise has been welcomed by a team that has always loved outside shots under John Beilein. However, this is still a guard-oriented squad, and that's a good thing for Monday night because the Wolverines are as well-equipped to handle Louisville's relentless pressure as any team in the country. Michigan has the best offensive turnover percentage in the nation, and in their 78-53 win over VCU (which owns the nation's best defensive turnover percentage), the Wolverines had 12 turnovers but shot 62.5 percent from the field to win going away.
Louisville is a better all-around defensive team than VCU, but if the Cardinals struggle to force turnovers, they lose chances at their best offense: scoring in transition behind Smith and Siva. And if Michigan does a reasonably good job protecting the ball, it's highly unlikely that Burke and Nik Stauskas are going to shoot as poorly as they did against the Orange.
Confidence building YouTube videos for Michigan fans...
Yes, Trey Burke can also play defense:
Mitch McGary announces his presence to America:
Russ Smith's decision-making is occasionally questionable:
Why Louisville will win: To simply label this as a clash of a great offense and a great defense would be unfair. Yes, the Cardinals are at their best when they force turnovers (they're second nationally in defensive turnover percentage), and, yes, they go through rough stretches on offense. But they still rank fifth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Michigan, meanwhile, has struggled with interior defense, and while the Wolverines are 32nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, it clearly can be a weakness for a streaky, sometimes undisciplined team that starts three freshmen (Stauskas, McGary and Glen Robinson III).
For what it's worth, in 10 previous seasons of Pomeroy's data, no national champion has ever finished outside the top 20 in either category; the worst was Syracuse's defense in 2003, which ranked 19th.
We've known all season that Russ Smith is especially prone to lapses with his baffling shot selection, but Michigan certainly isn't immune to streaks on offense either. Undersized at 6-feet against Syracuse's 2-3 zone (and, more important, its length), Burke -- who has won basically all of the national player of the year honors, including the Wooden and Naismith awards -- shot just 1-for-8 from the field with seven points, five rebounds and six assists. All three starting guards struggled, in fact, as sharpshooter Stauskas failed to make a shot and Tim Hardaway Jr. went 4-of-16.
Louisville's depth took a big hit with the loss of Kevin Ware, but this is still a deep, experienced team with many scoring options, including Saturday's savior Luke Hancock, the 6-foot-6 wing who played 31 minutes off the bench against Wichita State and scored 20 points. The Cardinals made it to the Final Four last year, and given how well they played down the stretch (their only loss since January was in five overtimes at Notre Dame on Feb. 9), it's clear they're capable of taking the next step and winning the third national championship in program history.
Confidence building YouTube videos for Louisville fans...
What happens when you force a lot of turnovers and have players like Chane Behanan:
The best transition scorer in college basketball:
One of these teams lost to Penn State, somewhat recently. It wasn't Louisville:
Final Pick: There's no question that this is a difficult pick. In a season dominated by the Big Ten, it would be fitting for the league to capture its first national championship since 2000; then again, over the last two-plus months overall, it's clear who the better team has been. Still, McGary's emergence in the interior is a major difference-maker for Michigan, and while Louisville may have the best defense in the country by the numbers, if anybody can handle the Cardinals' pressure, it's Burke and the Wolverines.
Let's just hope all the ugly shooting is behind us, and that the possession arrow won't be a factor.
Michigan 72, Louisville 70