Keep calm and carry on (not turning the ball over)
This has been the story of the tournament, but that is what happens when you face your fourth KenPom top-10 adj efficiency defense in four games. So far Michigan has bested the havoc press, the shot blocking of Kansas, the smothering pace of Florida, and the suffocating length and scheme of Syracuse. While it hasn't always been pretty, the one constant is this: Michigan simply refuses to turn the ball over.
While this comes as no surprise to those that have been following the team, it takes a certain amount of suspension of disbelief from outsiders that can't possibly believe that the Wolverines won't fall prey to (insert defensive scheme du jour).
Against Louisville, this stat finally steps out of the shadows and into the forefront. Tonight will be the match-up of the nation's best ball control offense -- boasting a turnover rate of 14.5% -- vs. the nations second best turnover forcing defense, doing so at almost twice that, 27.3% (the best? That'd be VCU). Louisville plays a fast pace and gets 14% of their initial shots within the first ten seconds of a possession after a steal.
Rest assured, folks. Michigan's best chance in this one is going to be doing what it's done all tournament: valuing the ball and denying the other team transition baskets. Only now Michigan is going to have to do it against VCU on steroids, one of the most fearsome defenses in the nation.
An immovable object vs. an unstoppable force. Something's gotta give.
In the last four games Michigan has posted three very impressive FG% defensive performances. VCU shot under 40% and both Florida and Syracuse managed to inch over 41%. Even the Kansas game, which looks ugly on first glance whey you consider the 54.4% shooting from the floor that Michigan gave up, isn't so bad when you realize that that number was north of 70% at halftime.
Michigan hasn't been playing defense like this all season, but what happens in March is the only thing that matters. The important number to remember here is VCU's 39% shooting performance. When pressing teams don't make shots they struggle to set up their press, which in turn keeps them from generating quick strike offense from opponent mistakes. That Michigan was able to crush VCU -- and post such a low turnover rate -- was thanks in part to the defense forcing enough missed shots to throw off the Rams' offensive rhythm. Michigan needs more of the same tonight.
Make Russdiculous Russordinary
There is one player of the year award that Trey Burke is far from winning. That is KenPom's player of the year race, in which Russ Smith has a bigger lead over the number two player (Burke, obvs.) than Burke has over the guy ranked tenth.
Smith has been a scoring machine, averaging 18 points per game, three rebounds, three assist, and two steals, all while shooting a solid 54% true shooting percentage. Smith is far and away the most important offensive player for the Cardinals, boasting a usage rate and a shot rate north of 32 percent.
He does most of his damage getting to the rim (just 30% on 2pt jumpers and 34% on threes, which combined comprise two-thirds of his shots) and Michigan is going to have to slow him down and keep him from carving up the defense (and getting McGary into foul trouble because of help defense -- something that almost cost Michigan against Syracuse).
Mitch being Mitch
Wasn't too long ago that invoking this sentiment wasn't the kind of thing that would have you grinning like an idiot. My, how things have changed.
McGary has come alive in the tournament so far, and Michigan's fortunes rise and fall with his play. Thankfully he continues to find new and exciting ways to surprise us, the latest of which was orchestrating Michigan's offense against the Syracuse zone.
Louisville is vulnerable on the inside. They don't do a great job cleaning up the defensive glass (giving up one-third of rebounding opportunities to the offense) which is where McGary has thrived so far this tournament, and given the way Mitch has blossomed as a passer and scorer the last few games, he now presents the kind of dynamic match-up nightmare that we all thought he could when he committed to Michigan as the second best recruit in his class. It has been a long road since that day, but Mitch McGary has almost come full circle.
Make your g**d*** free throws!
So yeah, Michigan quite nearly shot itself in the foot against Syracuse, finishing the game making 11 of 20 from the line and missing a lot of very crucial freebies late. Michigan survived in spite of its shooting from the line, not because of it, and this isn't the first time all season when this has been a concern. It is mitigated somewhat by the fact that Michigan simply doesn't shoot many free throws, but when the guys in black and white give you free chances for points, you'd better take them.
Overall I feel pretty good about this match-up. They say defense wins championships, but Michigan's offense has spent the last two weeks neutralizing that assumption by refusing to commit turnovers and making smart decisions in transition.
However, the biggest key comes down to the same player it has at pretty much every point for the last two seasons since he forced his way into the starting lineup as a freshman and never relinquished control of the team.
This is Trey Burke's team, it is his moment in the spotlight, and his chance to solidify himself as one of the college game's all time greats. No matter what happens tonight Michigan fans will all look back on Trey's career for years to come with awe and wonderment.
A win tonight, and the whole country will be forced to do the same.