Twenty years ago, a fabulous group of five sophomores played for a national championship against a college basketball powerhouse. We all know the result, which has been trumpeted across newsstands and the internet for the past week. Chris Webber’s timeout that gave North Carolina two free throws and the ball to seal the victory with 11 seconds remaining was a heartbreaking moment for the Michigan basketball program. And the aftermath was just as devastating. Michigan plunged into basketball purgatory as a result of Webber’s (and others’) off-the-court actions – taking money from booster Ed Martin – and only started climbing out within the past few years.
John Beilein, a college basketball journeyman in his own right, took the reigns from Tommy Amaker in 2007 and suffered through a 10-22 season. Five years later, and just a day removed from the 20th anniversary of that Webber timeout mishap, Michigan returns to the title game against another college basketball thoroughbred.
Louisville entered the tournament as the top overall seed and hasn’t disappointed. The Cardinals rolled through North Carolina A&T, Colorado State, Oregon, and Duke before nearly stumbling in Saturday’s Final Four matchup with Wichita State. The Shockers held a one-point lead at halftime and widened it to 12 with under 14 minutes to play, but Louisville dialed up the defensive pressure, forcing seven turnovers in the final seven minutes to fuel the comeback.
Just like Michigan got unlikely contributions in its Final Four win over Syracuse, Louisville got a 20-point game from backup wing Luke Hancock. The junior averages just 7.7 points per game in 22 minutes of action on the season. But he’s certainly not the Cardinals’ go-to man. That would be junior guard Russ Smith who averages 18.9 point per game. He’s the only player on the team averaging in double figures and he has scored at least 21 points in every tournament game so far. In those five games, he has shot an impressive 50 percent from the field. He’s certainly not shy about shooting the ball, averaging nearly 16 shots – and six threes – per game during the tournament. Like Trey Burke, he is susceptible to poor outings every now and then like a 2-for-13 performance in a January loss to Villanova.
Joining Smith in the backcourt is senior guard Peyton Siva who averages 9.8 points and 5.7 assists per game. He has had an up and down tournament so far, with a 16-point night against Duke in which he made 6-of-10 from the field, but also combined to shoot 2-of-14 for 11 points in games against Oregon and Wichita State. He’s a capable scorer, but he’s much more of a set-up man for Smith.
Inside, the Cardinals have a talented center in Gorgui Dieng who averages 9.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per contest. He didn’t score a point in 30 minutes on Saturday, but scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against Duke in the Elite Eight matchup. His length and athleticism allow him to control the paint where he averages 2.5 blocks per game.
Sophomore forward Chane Behanan scores 9.6 points per game and ranks second on the team with a 6.4 rebound average. He nearly had a double-double against Wichita State with 10 points and nine boards. Wingman Wayne Blackshear gets about 20 minutes per game and averages 7.6 points, while freshman forward Montrezl Harrell averages 5.7 in 16 minutes a game. Harrell scored 11 points against Colorado State on 5-of-7 shooting.
Of course the player that will soak up the airtime on tonight’s broadcast is sophomore guard Kevin Ware who suffered a gruesome leg injury against Duke. He only averaged 16 minutes and 4.5 points per game, but his loss takes away backcourt depth.
As a team, Louisville was the Big East’s top scoring offense, averaging 74.3 points per game, and the fourth best shooting team at 45.6 percent. But the Cardinals aren’t a great three-point shooting team, hitting at a 32.9 percent clip. Neither are they a great defensive rebounding team, ranking ninth in the Big East. That may be an area Michigan can exploit, much like it did in the first half against Syracuse.
With a national title on the line, both teams will give it their all. Neither team has anything left to play for so you can be assured that it will be a hard fought battle from the onset. But what does Michigan need to do in order to win? Let’s take a look.
1. Handle the pressure. Many wondered how the youngest team in this year’s tournament field would handle the big stage on Saturday night, but the Wolverines rose to the occasion. In fact, it was the freshmen that fueled the lead in the first half when the veterans were struggling. A similar response will be needed tonight in an even bigger game. And I’m not only talking about the pressure of the moment.
Louisville is known for its relentless defensive pressure which forced a Big East-leading 10.8 steals per game. Michigan has the best player in the nation, who just happens to be its point guard, to help break the pressure, but don’t be surprised to see a lot of Spike Albrecht once again. The freshman has shown great ball handling skills and decision making along with the ability to hit the big shot when needed.
Michigan was able to get out to a big first half lead against Syracuse because it took care of the basketball, took its time on offense, and didn’t force things. When the Orange applied pressure late in the game to try to complete its comeback, Michigan got a little sloppy with the ball. Fortunately, it didn’t cost them the game, but the Wolverines will need to show the poise it had in the first half of that game rather than down the stretch.
2. Don’t let up. This ties into the first point, but against Louisville no lead is safe. The Cardinals have come back to win six games from deficits of nine points or more this season, including on Saturday. The relentless pressure is able to create turnovers which lead to transition baskets and can swing the momentum in a hurry. If Michigan manages to get out to a sizable lead like it did on Saturday or like Wichita State did on Saturday, the Wolverines need to keep the foot on the gas pedal. Rather than playing not to lose, which it seemingly did down the stretch on Saturday, Michigan must keep attacking and hitting open shots.
3. Make free throws. Free throws down the stretch have been dicey all season for Michigan, most glaringly in a loss to Indiana in which both Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. missed the front end of one-and-ones that allowed the Hoosiers to steal a win. On Saturday night, Michigan fans across the globe were having flashbacks as Mitch McGary missed three straight and Burke and Jon Horford each hit just one of two. But this time it didn’t cost them the game. With a national title on the line, the nerves will be at an all-time high and the outcome of the game could very well come down to which team hits its free throws in the closing seconds.
Michigan’s only national title, in 1989, Rumeal Robinson hit a pair of free throws with three seconds left in overtime to give Michigan a 80-79 victory. That’s about as clutch as it gets. Will someone on this team be able to do the same if the situation presents itself?
The good news is Louisville isn’t a great free throw shooting team either, hitting just under 71 percent. Smith and Siva are both solid at 80.6 and 85.9 percent – although Smith struggled from the charity stripe on Saturday – but the rest of the Cardinals team is iffy. Hancock is the next best at 76.9 percent, but Behanan is the guy to foul if possible. He shoots just 54.1 percent and has attempted the second most on the team behind Smith.
Prediction: Michigan has been overlooked all tournament long, but will have every chance to win this one. The Wolverines have already taken down teams coached by Shaka Smart, Bill Self, Billy Donovan, and Jim Boeheim, so confidence isn’t lacking. Over the course of those games, John Beilein’s squad has seen nearly every kind of look possible and has risen to the occasion each time. Louisville will present a similar match up as VCU did in the second game, though the Cardinals will be bigger, longer, and more talented. That was a good matchup for Michigan and the Wolverines can exploit the pressure in this one as well. Virtually nobody thought it possible when the Wolverines limped into the tournament having lost six of 12, but with the way they have played over the last three weeks, all signs point to them being the team of destiny. Yes, Louisville has a great defense, but Michigan leads the nation in fewest turnovers and that will be the key to victory. Michigan wins a close one, 66-62, and puts to rest the demons that have haunted the program over the past 20 years.