Louisville vs. Michigan: Defense is key in NCAA championship game

Louisville and Michigan are two college teams that like to run the basketball floor. They will do just that in the NCAA men's national championship game in Atlanta. But the team that plays better defense will take the title.

Jeff Haynes/REUTERS
Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino (R) sits with Michigan Wolverines head coach John Beilein ahead of the NCAA men's Final Four basketball championship in Atlanta, Georgia April 7, 2013.

Two teams which have both spent time ranked No. 1 in the country this season will meet in the ultimate match Monday night in Atlanta - the NCAA men's basketball championship.

The University of Michigan and the University of Louisville will play in the title game that's scheduled to tip off at 9:23 p.m. Eastern time. The Wolverines and Cardinals have met on the basketball court twice in their histories. Louisville defeated Michigan in both 1977 and 1978.

The Cardinals had to come from behind against Wichita State Saturday night in one national semifinal, while the Wolverines held off Syracuse at the end of the other NCAA semifinal. Both winners got big contributions from their bench players - Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell, and Tim Henderson for Louisville and Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht for Michigan.

The 75th edition of this tournament has been replete with Cinderella story lines, including Wichita State and Florida Gulf Coast University. But there are also the stories from the Louisville roster: Kevin Ware's horrific leg injury against Duke and the serious illness that Luke Hancock's father is dealing with.

On Monday, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino learned he has been selected for induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame next fall. Pitino is trying to win his second NCAA title with his third university, after taking Providence College to the 1987 Final Four and winning the 1996 NCAA championship at Kentucky.

There are three areas to watch when looking at Monday night's game.

First, when the Wolverines have the ball in a half-court offensive situation, can Louisville's guards contain Michigan's guards with their size advantage? Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Nik Stauskas are both 6 ft., 6-inches tall. Michigan head coach John Beilein might position his players down near the basket and force Louisville to provide defensive help for their guards, who measure an even six feet. This movement could create openings in the Cardinal defense that a variety of Wolverines can take advantage of.

Louisville senior guard Russ Smith spoke about the challenges Michigan will present.

"We know how good Michigan is. They move the ball really well. They have great shooters, great length, great height. And we just gotta be prepared for all their sets, in the zone offense, in man-to-man offense. But overall, I think it should be a pretty interesting game," Smith told reporters Sunday in Atlanta.

Secondly, can Michigan withstand Louisville's pressure bringing the ball up the floor? Yes, the Wolverines did a masterful job of doing just that against Virginia Commonwealth earlier in the NCAA tournament. But the Cardinals are vastly more talented in creating turnovers than the Rams.

Michigan sophomore guard Trey Burke compares and contrasts Louisville's pressure defense.

"It's definitely similar to VCU's pressure, Florida's pressure. But I think it's different because I think they rotate a lot of guys and keep guys fresh. They have two really dynamic guards in Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. So me and Tim and Spike and Caris, just the whole backcourt ... our job is just to limit our turnovers and try to attack their pressure as much as possible," Burke said Sunday in Atlanta.

Finally, the men in the middle - Gorgui Dieng for Louisville and Michigan's Mitch McGary. Saturday night, McGary reminds one of a young, more athletic Bill Laimbeer. the rugged center who played in college at Notre Dame and professionally for the Detroit Pistons in the 1980s and 90s. McGary can score, rebound and pass very well. He had six assists against Syracuse Saturday night to go along with 12 rebounds and two blocks.

For Dieng, Saturday night was not 'alright for fightin,' as British rock music legend Elton John might have sung it. The 6 ft, 11-in. junior center from Senegal was neutralized by Wichita State's pack-it-in-the-paint defense. Dieng went scoreless with six rebounds in 30 minutes of play. But Dieng did record two blocks Saturday and has 80 for the year. And it's that interior defensive presence that could spell the difference, especially if Dieng can dent the scoring column at all Monday night.

Now all this conjecture is subject to change, especially if both teams start knocking down three-point shots. Regardless, it should be a terrific college basketball game Monday night.

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