Tonight, Michigan plays for their first national championship since 1989, when Rumeal Robinson and Glen Rice led the Wolverines to a memorable 80-79 overtime victory over Seton Hall.
A month ago, a championship game appearance looked like an afterthought after Bo Ryan and Wisconsin out-adjusted the Wolverines in the Big Ten Tournament. However, we're now here. Mitch McGary is here too, and the freshman forward has been the difference during what's turned into an amazing title run.
The opponent is Louisville, the number one overall seed led by legendary coach Rick Pitino, who tonight looks to become the first coach to ever win a national championship at two different schools. The Cardinals are favored to win, but it's based more on overall season performance and not how the two teams are currently playing.
Tom picked Michigan by one in the preview, and I agree that Michigan is going to win, and there are a couple reasons that stand out more than others as to why it's the case.
Tourney Runs: After being Syracuse and their vaunted 2-3 zone defense, the Wolverines have faced pretty much every kind of opponent imaginable. Not only that, but they have faced the best of each kind of defense as well with VCU, Kansas, Florida and the aforementioned 'Cuse team being among the best defenses in the country.
Louisville will attack Michigan with a VCU type defense with the athletes that a team like Florida possesses. Again, if there's a team in this tournament that is prepared to face a defense like the Cardinals', it has to be the Wolverines. They've gotten here with smart guard play and still lead the country with the lowest turnover average. Louisville is the best team Michigan has faced, but I don't think their run of opponents has been as impressive. Duke is a post-play team that relies on shooting and doesn't have the reliable guard play to beat the press consistently.
Burke/Hardaway: One of these two players is due to have a big game tonight. Not many expected Michigan to make this run, but even less would have expected it knowing their star player was shooting 13% below his season average. Outside of the second half against Kansas, he has been relatively pedestrian strictly from a scoring standpoint.
Hardaway, meanwhile, has cooled off after a good start to the tournament. He's shooting 27% in the last three games and while he's hit a couple big shots, has yet to find his groove. One thing that's encouraging is that the team has been successful while he continues to shoot. He's a player who can carry the team if he starts to hit early. One of these two players has to break out of their slump if they are to win tonight. I believe it will happen.
Keep doing what you're doing: A lot of this goes back to what Burke does when he's not scoring, but this team has played incredibly smart throughout the duration of the tournament. Knowing when to push and pull against the defense, making the right passes and taking the right shots and rotating properly on the other end.
It sort of goes back to the first point I illustrated, but with all the different looks Michigan has seen, especially on the other end, there shouldn't really be anything specifically that surprises them too much tonight. On the other hand, Louisville hasn't faced a team nearly as complete as Michigan is.
McGary: He's become the Swiss Army Knife for this team. He'll out-hustle you on the boards. He'll pass his way out of the zone. He'll hit the elbow jumper. He'll even drive it from the top of the key to the basket.
Once he took Jeff Withey for 25 points and 14 rebounds, I don't think there was any doubt that he's capable of a big game against anybody. Gorgui Dieng, while being a quality big man, will have his hands full with McGary, who will likely run him up and down the floor, provided Michigan can get in transition off the defensive rebound. He's not as reliable on Trey Burke as most think offensively. He has been and will always be the key player outside of Trey because his success opens up the wings for open shots. Tonight will be no different.