A Look Ahead: Louisville

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

As per tradition around here, let's take a gander at what might await Michigan in the finals. Tomorrow we'll look at Wichita State (which is sweet of us, but y'all know it'll be Louisville).

The season

Louisville has pretty clearly been one of the best teams all season, but there have been a handful of losses and those have come at fairly weird times. First, it was a loss to Duke in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament title game in November. The Cards lost by five points. That would be the last loss for almost two months, and in the meantime Louisville would beat up on a whole bunch of teams that weren't worth a crap (as well as Kentucky when it was).

In late January, the Cards lost three games in a row. A two-point loss to Syracuse, a nine-point loss to Villanova, and a two-point loss to Georgetown -- the latter two away from home. Two weeks later would be one of the weirdest losses of the season, a five overtime stunner at the hands of Notre Dame.

That would be it for losses on the season as Louisville would finish tied atop the Big East at 14-4, win the Big East tournament with a second win over Syracuse, and roll through four lopsided tournament games on the way to being heavy favorites in the Final Four.

The team

Louisville is a Rick Pitino team: fast-paced, defense focused, and able to score in a hurry. Talking to a friend about Louisville's last game, he commented that it looked like the Cards were running layup drills on Duke. When Louisville's offense is clicking, it looks something like that.

The centerpiece is Russ Smith, a junior guard who is putting together a strong season. He is statistically the only player more valuable than Trey Burke in KenPom's player of the year race. He is a high usage (31.8%) shoot first guard that can knock down shots with ease (47/33/82 shooting % splits), and get to the line (6.8 (!) fouls drawn per forty minutes). Smith adds a decent assist rate (21.5%) and a stellar steal rate (4.3%).

The other backcourt player is point guard Peyton Siva, who is averaging a hair under 10 points per game with 5.8 assists, while adding the same great steal rate as Smith (4.3%). Both guards are six-foot tall upperclassmen and nightmare defensive match-ups that can test Michigan's very solid ball control offense.

The wings are manned by a pair of 6'6 forwards, Chane Behanan and Luke Hancock. Behanan is the bruiser of the two, a good offensive rebounder (12.5% OR rate) and capable inside scorer -- who happens to be a free throw liability at 52% from the line. Hancock is a bomber with 172 3PA vs. 63 from inside the arc.

Gorgui Dieng mans the inside and is in the top 100 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate as well as block rate.

Like any press-heavy team, Louisville has a deep rotation, with three other players getting 40% or more of available minutes. One of those players, guard Kevin Ware, you've probably heard of for all the wrong reasons. He won't be available anytime soon thanks to the most gruesome injury I've ever seen. That leaves forward Wayne Blackshear and post Montrezl Harrell to pick up the slack. Blackshear is the kind of wing you want coming off the bench for a press. He is an active defender (2.6 steal%), a serviceable outside shooter (31% on 135 attempts), and not an offensive liability with the ball in his hands (TO% of 10.8). Harrell is a shorter version of Dieng: a rebounder and shot blocker that won't venture out of the lane.

Michigan's three keys

Ball control - Michigan's offense just faced three of the toughest defensive challenges of anyone in the tournament over the last three games, and put up 1.2, 1.16, and 1.11 points per possession. That is hella good, and one of the big factors behind those strong numbers is Michigan's ability to turn possessions into shots, not turnovers. Michigan has the skill players on the outside to handle the press, and if things get hairy, Spike Albrecht has proven to be a great option off the bench to help deal with heavy defensive pressure. So far this tournament when the match-up has been the other team trying to force turnovers vs. Michigan trying to avoid them, the Wolverines have come out on top each time. Against Louisville, this will need to happen again.

A continued defensive revival - The thing everybody talks about last when considering Michigan's scorched earth tournament run is the defense. Michigan has upped its game on that side of the ball, and this has opened up a slew of opportunities for Michgian's ravenous transition offense. Louisville wants to score off turnovers and quick baskets. If Michigan can make it a half court game on that end of the court -- much like the Wolverines did against VCU -- and make the Cards work for their shots, it will give the Wolverines a better chance to get stops which A) keep Louisville from being able to ratchet up the pressure and B) allow Michigan to attack.

Make the second chances count - Louisville doesn't do a good job keeping opponents off the offensive glass, giving up a third of all defensive rebound opportunities to the other team. That sound you hear is Mitch McGary cackling with delight. He has shown an uncanny ability to suck in offensive boards like a Hoover, and Michigan will need all the second chance points it can get, especially if that means Louisville is denied a few extra opportunities to push the ball off rebounds.

Eh?

Right now there is no team scarier than the Cards left in the tournament. Rick Pitino's squad is playing great basketball and smothering opponents with his brand of uptempo defensive basketball. The team relies on three juniors and a senior in the starting lineup, so game experience isn't an issue.

Still, methinks that if Michigan makes it to the title game and faces Louisville, that the match-up favors Michigan more than most would figure. The key is ball control. As long as Michigan is able to avoid turnovers it will be able to dictate the pace of the game and not allow the Cards the opportunity to score quickly off turnovers. While it would be foolish to imagine Michigan winning with the same ease it did against VCU, the philosophy both teams bring to the game are similar, and they both aim to attack Michigan's best attribute. It would take a complete effort (as all title games do), but Michigan has as good a chance as anyone else of unseating the number one overall seed if it comes down to it.

But for now, beat the Orange.

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