National championship preview: Michigan vs. Louisville

Ben Raven breaks down Monday night's NCAA Basketball National Championship game.

Louisville and Michigan have taken vastly different paths on their way to Atlanta.

The Cardinals haven’t lost since Feb. 6, when it took Notre Dame five overtime periods to beat Louisville, 104-101. Currently on a 15-game win streak, the Big East regular season and tournament champions have been on a roll as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, while Michigan limped into the tournament going 6-6 in its last 12 games.

The Wolverines went from being the last remaining undefeated team and being ranked No. 1 in the nation to being selected as a No. 4 seed in the tournament and finishing in fifth place in the Big Ten. With that said, the only thing that matters now is the fact that each are the last two teams standing, respectively.

Louisville sports the nation’s best defense and Michigan its best offense.

The trio of Russ Smith, Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva present a nightmare in preparation for any team in the country. Smith is the only player that averages 10-plus points per game and is averaging 25 points per game (PPG) throughout the NCAA tournament. The 6’11” Dieng is an excellent shot blocker and rebounder but his offensive game can disappear at times.

Siva is the senior leader for Louisville and while his stats don’t fly off the paper, what he does for this team from a leadership standpoint is paramount to the Cardinals’ success. Louisville likes to pressure the ball from start to finish and Siva leads that attack with his 2.2 steals per game, as he is the school’s all-time leader in steals.

While Louisville’s strength is forcing turnovers, Michigan’s is protecting the ball. Leading the way for the Wolverines is national player of the year, Trey Burke.

Burke has averaged 19.2 PPG along with 6.7 assists per game (APG) this season but his defining attribute has been his ability to turn it on when under pressure. In what may be the tournament’s defining game (and moment), Burke scored all of his 23 points in the second half and overtime against Kansas in the Sweet 16, including a couple of clutch 3-pointers from around midcourt.

For Michigan to hang with Louisville, the Wolverines are going to need a lot more production from Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. The star backcourt struggled from the floor in their last game against Syracuse, shooting five-of-24 from the floor for 20 combined points.

While the spotlight will be on the matchup of Burke and Hardaway Jr. versus Siva and Smith, look to the pairing of Dieng versus Mitch McGary down low to decide this game. McGary has been playing like a man possessed since becoming a part of the starting rotation in Michigan’s first tournament game against South Dakota State.

Dieng was held scoreless against Wichita State and Louisville struggled, only winning by four points, which happened to be the smallest margin of victory during the Cards’ 15-game win streak.

For McGary to get the best of the lengthy Dieng he will need to be able to knock down the midrange jumper. Dieng is known as a shot blocker and McGary will have to stretch the floor for Michigan to have success in the half-court game.

Both teams are coming off games in which they were lucky to escape and move on.

Louisville was down by 12 points with just over 13 minutes to play against Wichita St. The main reason that the Cardinals were able to come back was the seven turnovers that they forced in the final seven minutes of the contest. While the game ended in controversial fashion—a quick jump ball whistle to prevent the Shockers from a chance to tie the game—Louisville showed impressive poise in their comeback victory.

Many people are calling the Michigan versus Syracuse ending controversial as well.

Syracuse was called for two late charging fouls in the waning moments of its ill-fated comeback attempt. While Louisville was impressive in a comeback victory, it seemed as though Michigan wanted nothing to do with moving on. The Wolverines shot just 11-of-20 from the free throw line. Missing one after another in the final minute of the game, McGary even found a way to miss three-in-a-row with a chance to ice the game.

With that said, if Burke, Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas can play like they have all season long, the Wolverines will cut down the nets for the first time since 1989. Stauskas was held scoreless after pouring in a career-high 22 points in the Elite Eight. If he cannot find his shot against the Cardinals defense, then it will be a painful end to the Wolverines’ season.

For Louisville’s Rick Pitino to become the first coach in NCAA history to win national championships at different schools, he will need his defense to control the game because when Louisville isn’t forcing turnovers they struggle.

Michigan played a team similar to Louisville (Virginia Commonwealth) in the Round of 32 and won convincingly 78-53. VCU implemented full-court pressure for the entire game and Michigan was able to break it down consistently. Comparing Louisville to VCU is impossible however, as the Cardinals are the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament for a reason.

Tip-off for Monday’s national championship game is set for 9:23 p.m. ET.