ATLANTA -- When Louisville made its late second-half run to survive Wichita State, and Michigan held on against Syracuse down the stretch, the two teams set up one of the great between-the-lines national title matchups in recent memory.
Michigan wields the nation's best offense. Lousiville destroys opponents with the nation's best defense. The Cardinals force the second-highest turnover rate in college basketball; Michigan turns the ball over less frequently than any team in the country. You do the math.
But as obviously fascinating as that dynamic is -- and we'll spend time discussing it below -- there is far more to this game than a mere strength-on-strength matchup. If that was all there was to it, Rick Pitino and John Beilein wouldn't be spending so much time watching tape with their staffs and players even as you read this paragraph. In fact, at least one of them is having fun.
"A lot of teams when you watch them, you get nervous a little bit because they do so many things well," Pitino said Sunday. "You have fun watching Michigan play basketball. The way they pass, cut, shoot, it's a John Beilein team. They're fun to watch. As a coach going to play them, I really enjoy watching them on film."
"I started at 5:45 this morning," Beilein said Sunday, when asked whether he was having as much fun breaking down Louisville in advance of the national title game. "I didn't think they were fun, because they give you so many looks. With a one-day prep, it's almost impossible to get ready for all of those things."
If Beilein can't cover all the bases, we can't either. But we can try to hit the major points. Informed by last week's in-depth, coach-assisted scouts, let's break down the things each team will need to execute on both sides of the ball in Monday's national title finale.
WHEN LOUISVILLE HAS THE BALL
Michigan's key: Stop dribble penetration. Wichita State couldn't finish the job Saturday night, thanks to a late Luke Hancock-led Louisville run, some sudden turnovers and a couple of questionable late calls (one a double-foul on Ron Baker and Stephan Van Treese, the other a way-too-quick held ball that robbed Wichita State of at least one final possession). So I'm sure it will be no consolation to the Shockers to know that they made at least one incredibly impressive strategic contribution to this Final Four. No Cardinals opponent since February had really figured it out, and it's something you can bet Beilein will be poring over: The Shockers showed everyone how to guard Louisville.
Of course, it isn't exactly a revelation that Louisville isn't a great perimeter shooting team. It's right there in their numbers. The Cardinals have shot just 32.9 percent from 3-point range this season, compared to 51.0 percent from inside the arc. The more challenging thing is to figure out how to keep the Cardinals, who spread the floor and run adjusted-angle ball screens with two of the fastest guards in the country (Peyton Siva and Russ Smith), out of the lane in the first place.
Wichita State cracked the code. They played under every screen. They over-sank into the lane, building a defensive stronghold from the inside out. They rebounded well, preventing second chances and tip-returns to the perimeter, where they'd be stuck scrambling to close out in odd-man situations. And they basically begged Louisville to shoot. For most of the game, particularly in the first half, this worked perfectly: Siva and Smith probed and probed and couldn't crack the Shockers' shell, and so the Cardinals were forced to settle for one bad shot after another.
On Saturday night, Pitino said Wichita State was the best lane-defending team they'd played all season, which would seem to suggest he doesn't think Michigan can replicate Gregg Marshall's strategy. But what if they can?
Louisville's key: Get into the lane; the earlier the better. The first half of this directive is explained above. The second half is a bit less obvious, but probably just as important. The Cardinals might want to attack in transition.
For one thing, that's where Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals said he thought Michigan was most concerned about its defense, even if it was just as likely to benefit their own attempts to get on the break. But it's also generally a good idea for Louisville, because the Cardinals are clearly better when they're flying at you when Smith is hurtling down the court and Eurostepping and making defenders feel vulnerable and alone.
That was one of the surprising things about Louisville's performance Saturday. They didn't really look to push. Had they done so slightly more often, they might have been able to shake Wichita State's stranglehold on the game. And we can't know if Michigan is set on employing Marshall's strategy or if Beilein is cooking up something entirely different; it's not like he's going to tell us this could be the obvious counterpunch.
WHEN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL
Louisville's key: Control Mitch McGary. Make Michigan shoot 2s. Before the NCAA tournament, McGary was a promising freshman who had not quite put it all together this season. Now he's verging on a top-10 lottery pick. What changed? McGary was always a good offensive rebounder, and he's transferred that skill seamlessly into greater minutes. But it's what he does with the ball after those rebounds -- his passing on kickouts, his finishes at the rim -- that has added a whole new dimension to Michigan's attack.
Louisville can't have that. If Michigan avoids breakneck speed and leaves it up to Trey Burke to break the Cardinals' matchup zone in the half court, then things get really simple: Louisville has to run shooters off the 3-point line and clear the defensive glass.
This serves two purposes. For one, though Michigan is an excellent outside shooting team, any team's long 2s are preferable (to the defense) than 3s. The Wolverines are typically happy to take long 2s. Meanwhile, Louisville would probably prefer long jumpers of any sort to McGary bruising his way inside for putbacks and dunks. You can't get a long rebound on four-footers, but you can when a 3 careens errantly off the rim, and Louisville can get Smith out in the open court much more easily that way.
In the end, though, it has often been difficult to untie Louisville's defense from its offense this year. Turnovers turn into points, which turn into leads, faster for Louisville than almost any team in the country. The fact of the matter is, the Cardinals are more than capable of guarding in the half court, too. How they choose to go about the task of guarding the nation's No. 1 offense will be fascinating, to say the least.
Michigan's key: Don't turn it over. Attack. And then go play. This is almost blindingly obvious, but that doesn't make it any less true. Michigan simply cannot turn the ball over against the Cardinals and hope to win Monday night.
The Wolverines' offense is good for a wide variety of reasons, particularly its accuracy from beyond the arc (37.7 percent) and especially inside it (53.3 percent). But you can't get those usually-accurate shots up if you give possessions away. The main reason Michigan is the most efficient offense in the country is the Wolverines turn it over less than any team (just 14.5 percent of their possessions). Despite its status as the second-best turnover-enabling squad in the country (which is a nice way to put it, I think), Louisville can score without forcing turnovers, and Michigan is as die-hard in its devotion to preventing transition defense as anyone. There are some caveats here, in other words. But it's almost impossible to imagine Michigan not taking care of the ball and still finding enough in other areas to compensate. Once the Cardinals put you in that blender, it is very difficult to get out.
Of course, the difference between Louisville and VCU -- the nation's chief practitioners of the turnover arts -- is the Cardinals can guard on possessions even when it doesn't force the opponent to cough up the ball. After the press has exhausted itself, the Cards switch back into their matchup zone defense. It is as tough as any half-court formation Michigan will have seen all season, Syracuse included.
This is why when Villanova coach Billy Lange discussed the Cardinals with me last week, he stressed the importance of attacking Louisville after you break the press. You'd rather face one defense than two on the same possession, and if you can inbound the ball running, and get across half court with a 5-on-4 or 4-on-3 advantage, you have to attack and try to get an easy shot.
That is especially the case for Michigan, which is perfectly suited to get good looks in the fast and secondary break. Burke is the best decision-maker in the country. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas are deadly spot-up shooters. Glenn Robinson III and McGary are constantly rim-running, ready to finish from any which angle. If this gets into an up-and-down game and Michigan routinely breaks the press, look out.
And if the game doesn't get into breakneck speed? If the Wolverines are stuck grinding it out in the half court? Fine. Then it's time to just go -- to play conceptually, as Lange termed Villanova's anti-Louisville-zone philosophy last week.
Not for nothing, Beilein agrees.
"What you're hoping is that you've been getting ready for that since October 15th," Beilein said. "You don't know whether you are, but just you got to dribble it strong, you got to pivot well, pass well, play with your eyes up. Those are things these guys have been working on all year long."
All the X's and O's scouting in the world -- or less scouting than either coach would prefer, in this case -- doesn't change that simple fact that the end of the day, it's just players making plays.
Enjoy the title game, everyone.