The 2013 NCAA tournament field has been whittled down from 68 initial teams to just two, the No. 1 Louisville Cardinals and No. 4 Michigan Wolverines, who will be vying for a national title Monday night.
Let’s take a look at a few of the must-watch players you need to look out for when these two historically prominent programs clash in Atlanta with a championship on the line.
Louisville Star to Watch: Russ Smith
Smith is a double-edged sword for the Cardinals. At times, the shooting guard looks the best player in the nation and is capable of getting to any spot he wants on the court and scoring from there.
In other situations, the junior’s alter ego, “Russdiculous,” takes over. This iteration of the 6’1” star is intent on taking poor shots, driving recklessly to the hoop, making bad passes, turning the ball over and doing everything possible to help Louisville not win.
Both Russdiculous and Smith showed up against Wichita State in the Final Four, with the former opening the game with awful shots and turnovers, while the latter finished by hitting some clutch free throws and making huge baskets in an epic comeback.
Depending on which version of the star shows up against Michigan, the Cardinals will either have an easy time winning on the back of Smith’s performance, or have to dig themselves out of a hole Russdiculous put them in.
Michigan Star to Watch: Trey Burke
Burke has been arguably the best player in the country for the duration of the 2012-13 campaign and his tournament performances have only helped build the sophomore’s reputation.
Perhaps his biggest contribution came against Kansas, when the budding star nailed a deep three-pointer to send the Sweet 16 matchup to overtime. The Wolverines obviously went on to win, with Burke finishing with 23 points, 10 assists, two rebounds and a steal in 44 minutes.
This young man struggled against the length of 6’6” Michael Carter-Williams and the Syracuse 2-zone, but projects to have a much better outing matched up against Peyton Siva and the Louisville press.
As long as Burke remains in control, is able to run the offense through the pressure and continue his scoring ways, he’ll keep Michigan right in the thick of things on Monday.
Louisville X-Factor: Tim Henderson
There couldn’t have been a more unlikely hero in the Cardinals' Final Four showdown with the Shockers.
This walk-on, who hasn’t received any scholarship money during his three seasons in Louisville, came in the game and hit two huge three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to completely swing the momentum into his team’s favor.
Due to Kevin Ware’s gruesome injury, there was a small amount of time available for the 6’2” guard, who averages 0.8 points, 0.5 rebounds and 0.1 assists per games this season.
He made the most of his ten minutes of play and brought Louisville from the brink of collapse to down just six points in one 42-second stretch.
Considering the Cardinals went on to win 72-68, there’s no doubting that this kid had a huge hand in the victory and could pull another miracle against the Wolverines in the championship match.
Michigan X-Factor: Mitch McGary
When people talk about the stars on Michigan, they are quick to highlight Burke’s all-around greatness, Glenn Robinson III’s blossoming production or Tim Hardaway Jr.’s unlimited range.
However, no player was more important on Saturday night for the Wolverines than McGary, the 6’10” freshman that dominated the paint and set up his teammates for success.
In 36 minutes of play, the big man set up inside the teeth of Orange’s vaunted zone defense and scored 10 points, grabbed 12 boards against tough rebounders on both ends of the court, blocked two shots and—perhaps most importantly—dished six assists.
McGary’s ability to collapse the zone around him was huge and afforded the many Michigan shooters a chance to get some open looks against the tournament’s top defense.
If he’s able to occupy two defenders—including UL’s rim protector Gorgui Dieng—on Monday, expect the Wolverines to have no problem putting up points and potentially winning it all.