National title may hinge on inside battle

Louisville and Michigan are fighting for the title thanks in large part to Gorgui Dieng and Mitch McGary. USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA -- Gorgui Dieng stumbled through his freshman year in the 2010-11 season.

The player who will make millions once he turns pro in a few weeks -- per Rick Pitino -- resembled most first-year talents then.

That season involved more confusion than confidence. He missed the first two months of team workouts awaiting the outcome of an appeal after an NCAA ruling that declared him ineligible for the first portion of the season.

Since then, he has become a defensive and rebounding force for a Louisville team that will face Michigan on Monday night at the Georgia Dome in the Cardinals' first title game since 1986. Dieng has made 81 starts for the Cardinals in his career. The raw big man from two years ago is now an elite player averaging 9.8 points, 9.4 rebounds (led the Big East in rebounding), 1.3 steals and 2.5 blocks.

And as he contends with a surging Mitch McGary (16.0 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 11 steals, six blocks, eight assists in five NCAA tournament games) -- a freshman who has competed like a lottery pick in recent weeks -- he is certain that those extra games, battles and experiences will give him an edge in one of the most critical matchups in the national title game.

“I think [experience] will be [a factor]. I think for maybe one play or something, little, little things,” Dieng said. “It is going to be important on rotations and hustle plays, just little things. Like Coach Pitino always tells me, you can have a good freshman but sometimes they will make mistakes.”

McGary, who will turn 21 in June, agrees that Dieng has the advantage in the matchup thanks to his experience as a player who’s competing in his second consecutive Final Four with Louisville.

“He is a great shot-blocker, great length in his arms and is very athletic, too,” McGary said. “I think it is going to be difficult. They play that matchup zone, which will be difficult for us. He has played so many more games than me, having gone through this process before. … Having a few more games under his belt could give him a little bit of an edge.”

But McGary’s journey from rugged, rumbling 6-foot-10 big man to the polished athlete who led the Wolverines in assists over Syracuse suggests he should be judged according to his most recent achievements and not by his age. Young players tend to shed labels in March and April.

After months of acclimation and adjustment, the playbook is more digestible now. Cuts, ball screens and spacing make more sense, too.

McGary’s evolution, however, is still surprising because he seems to have grasped every basketball tenet coaches preach to young big men in the most significant chapter of the season.

That’s why the tape from the first four months of the season might be meaningless for Pitino as he prepares his team to deal with the player who has transformed Michigan into a more balanced squad and a national championship contender. Opponents always had backcourt dilemmas whenever they faced the Wolverines (see: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.).

But McGary’s late maturation has turned John Beilein’s program into a more ferocious threat, especially inside.

Some might assume that Burke, Hardaway, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith would dictate the final score of the national championship matchup.

But coaches and players from both teams acknowledge that Louisville’s ability to push McGary off the block and limit his impact on the defensive and offensive boards will matter. The Cardinals’ matchup zone could get confused if Michigan's inside-outside attack persists.

Plus, McGary is as strong as any player Louisville has encountered in the tournament. That bulk has been a challenge for some of the top defenses in America -- VCU, Kansas and Florida -- to overcome in the Big Dance.

“Mitch McGary, in the beginning of the year, was a good player who had really good potential. Now he’s a great player, one of the premier big guys in our country,” Pitino said. “So he’s not a freshman, doesn’t play like a freshman. Nobody on their team does.”

The Wolverines know Dieng is the cornerstone of a defensive attack that has ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. Dieng’s scrappiness inside and shot-blocking ability have helped the Cardinals win 15 games in a row.

Multiple players are responsible for Louisville’s unyielding defense. But Dieng’s ability to contest and alter shots is certainly tied to Louisville outscoring its opponents by 19 points in the paint entering the Final Four.

“We’ve gotta be physical, keeping them off the boards, and try to get as many second-chance opportunities as we can because they’ve got great shot-blockers and they play good defense, so it’s important for us to follow in there and get some easy points on putbacks,” Jordan Morgan said.

Dieng and McGary affect games with contrasting styles.

But their quests to the final games of the season feature similarities.

Both players needed time to finally portray the tools they’ve used to lift their programs to this stage.

A year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire after high school molded McGary on and off the floor, he said. At the time, he had struggled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Prep school, he said, allowed him to develop ways to manage it while enhancing his athletic skills. Talents that have led many to doubt his recent declaration that he will return to school for another season.

“It helped me grow as a player and off the court,” he said. “It helped me build a lot more character. On the court, it helped me with making better decisions, focusing a lot more. I was going through the ADHD and wasn’t handling it very well. I just tried to focus on the little things that I could, and I turned to Brewster and it helped me a lot.”

Dieng understands that growth process and the development it incites. So he’s far less focused on his advantage in experience than he is concerned about the talents of a big man who’s been a handful for veteran post players for weeks.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Dieng said. “He’s a good basketball player. If it gets to the point that experience is going to separate us, I am willing to do my best to stop him and protect the paint."