It wasn’t an easy weekend, but No. 1 Louisville and No. 4 Michigan escaped the Final Four with college basketball’s biggest prize now just one game away.
Monday night’s championship showdown has a lot to live up to. The Final Four featured a couple terrific matchups that won’t be easily topped, but these two teams certainly have the talent to make us forget all about Saturday’s exciting affairs.
Both teams boast a ton of talent at every position on the floor. With explosive offenses and defenses that thrive on forcing turnovers, we’re sure to see a balanced matchup with enough scoring to keep it especially entertaining.
Let’s take a look at some individual matchups worth noting and predict who will come out on top on Monday night.
Russ Smith vs. Trey Burke
Junior forward Luke Hancock and sophomore forward Chane Behanan came up huge against Wichita State on Saturday, but all eyes will again be on junior guard Russ Smith.
The potential most outstanding player of the tournament, Smith has averaged 25 points per game for the Cardinals in the Big Dance. With five games of 20-plus points, it’s hard to imagine Smith not having a monster game against the Wolverines on Monday.
Like Smith, sophomore guard Trey Burke has the scoring ability to absolutely take over a game. He’s been inconsistent at the offensive end in the tournament, but his 13.8 points-per-game average has still paced a steady Michigan attack.
Big games require big performances from a team’s best player, and Burke and Smith have to play a strong game under the bright lights in Atlanta.
The Edge: Russ Smith
Mitch McGary vs. Gorgui Dieng
Because of the scoring ability of both teams’ backcourts, the strong play of Mitch McGary and Gorgui Dieng has been overshadowed in the tournament. While Smith, Burke, Peyton Siva and Tim Hardaway Jr. will again play a big role in pursuit of the championship, McGary and Dieng will be the X-factors in this contest.
Dieng was a nonfactor in Louisville’s comeback victory against Wichita State in the Final Four, but the 6’11” center has the ability to control a game in the post. Averaging 7.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in the tournament, Dieng will be expected to neutralize Michigan’s talented freshman in McGary.
McGary has hit an extra gear in the Big Dance, posting two 20-plus-point games and averaging 11.6 rebounds per contest. The 6’10” big man played well in the regular season, but his tournament performance has far exceeded expectations.
Both teams love to play an up-tempo offensive game, meaning slowing things down at the offensive end will be crucial to keeping this game from getting out of hand. Dieng and McGary have to make their presence felt at both ends and set the tone with physicality and aggressiveness under the hoop.
The Edge: Mitch McGary
Regardless of the outcome, there’s no way this game is an unexciting affair. Michigan and Louisville have proved they are the two best teams in the country.
While individual matchups will be the focus heading into the game, turnovers will be the deciding factor in crowning a champion.
Michigan averages the fewest turnovers in the country this season (9.4), but the Cardinals have been stingier in the last three games of the tournament. Louisville has turned the ball over an average of 10 times since the Sweet 16, while Michigan’s 10.3 per game in that span come in slightly higher than its season average.
Louisville struggled mightily in forcing turnovers against Wichita State, though, and it can’t afford to run into the same problem Monday night. If the Cardinals can’t force turnovers with full-court pressure, it’s going to be a long night for Rick Pitino’s squad.
Bovada.lv lists Louisville as a four-point favorite in this contest, but there’s evidence to suggest the final score will be closer than that. Michigan and Louisville match up extremely well at both ends of the floor, and balance will keep this game from getting out of hand for either team.
As well as both teams have played this season, determining a winner is no easy task. This game will come down to the wire, but Louisville gets the edge in a high-scoring affair.
Prediction: Louisville 76, Michigan 74
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