Star power has lifted both of this year's national championship participants—the Louisville Cardinals and Michigan Wolverines—to unprecedented new heights this season. Trey Burke and Russ Smith are both AP All-Americans (Burke as a member of the first team and Smith as a member of the third), while other big names like Peyton Siva and Mitch McGary have been equally pivotal to navigating through March.
But let's not overlook the little guys.
Neither team boasts the most impressive depth in the country, but this is basketball we're talking about. The consummate team sport. A game where one weak link, one single flaw, one solitary blemish is enough to completely derail a game or season.
Both teams would have been felled far earlier if the whole team wasn't functioning efficiently. And come game time, with the big stage and bright lights bearing down, the team who gets better contributions from its role players is likely to cut down the nets.
Here are three players in particular who need to step up.
For the sake of semantics, we've defined "role player" as anyone who (a) averages under 27.0 minutes per game, or (b) isn't named Mitch McGary.
F Chane Behanan, Louisville
You're probably most familiar with Behanan's work from YouTube, where an improperly waived off super-dunk against DePaul this season allowed him to go viral. But as a key cog in Louisville's tournament run—and really, its entire season—the bouncy sophomore forward usually goes overlooked.
Michigan can't afford to do that.
Behanan has played progressively longer in each of Louisville's tournament games, and though he hasn't put up any huge numbers yet, he has hovered right around his season averages. But numbers only tell half of the story. In the case of Behanan, most of his contributions come outside the box score.
Gorgui Dieng gets most of the love regarding Louisville's interior defense, and it's easy to see why. Shot-blockers are sexier than bruisers, and sexy is what sells in the postgame recap.
But in Behanan, Dieng has the ideal complement for his thin, wiry frame. Behanan is big and tough and scrappy in the post. He's willing to throw his body around in any situation, and he's proven to be effective in doing so.
Against Michigan's Mitch McGary—who, in case you've been living under a rock, has become a tournament darling for playing much the same way—Behanan, not Dieng, will need to match Michigan's physicality in the paint.
If McGary is neutralized, especially on the offensive glass, it will be very hard for Michigan to pull this minor upset. It will also likely be Behanan's doing.
F Jordan Morgan, Michigan
The aforementioned rise of McGary has been one of, if not the single most fascinating storyline of the past month. Sadly, though, not all are so eager to revel in the freshman's improvement. For Jordan Morgan, it came at his expense.
Not that Morgan can blame his underwhelming season on McGary and McGary alone. His regression has been undeniable. But having a hot-shot 20-year-old slowly usurp your minutes can't be good for the mental aspect of things, either.
Not so very long ago, Morgan was the hot-shot 19-year-old making headlines for his play in Ann Arbor. He averaged 9.2 points on 62.7 percent shooting as a freshman in 2010-11. But since that auspicious start to his career, he's deflated to 4.7 points per game and averages eight fewer minutes per night.
Having said all that, Michigan could very much use the Morgan of old against Louisville this evening. The Wolverines' front line is both powerful and talented, equally capable of scoring on and shutting down its opponents. And if McGary overextends himself trying to combat that, there's a good chance he could find himself in foul trouble.
Morgan needs to give them around 20 minutes of tough, physical play—the kind of play he was famous for as a freshman. If he can't turn back the clock in Atlanta, Louisville's superior depth will be tough to ignore.
G/F Luke Hancock, Louisville
Why spend 200-plus words describing what Hancock is capable of? If you're reading this article, you probably already know about his game-altering potential, and if you don't, the highlights sum it up in a way my words never could:
Paul Biancardi of ESPN.com had high praise for Hancock, too:
The Cardinals struggled to shoot the long ball last season, and George Mason transfer Luke Hancock has been the perfect remedy this year. With all the attention to Russ Smith and Siva making plays on the perimeter and Gorgui Dieng and Behanan down low, it's quite often Hancock with his strong 3-point shooting who saves the Cardinals and goes unnoticed.
More so than the other two guys on this list, Hancock actually deviates from the headline. Louisville doesn't necessarily need him to play well the way it needs Behanan to (or the way Michigan needs Morgan).
But more so than either, his inverse is veracious. Louisville can win either way, but with Hancock, Michigan needs him to not play well in order to win.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!