NCAA men’s basketball championship game preview

vs. MICHIGAN (31-7)

■ Site: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

■ Tipoff: 6:23 p.m. today

■ Louisville keys to victory: Return to its aggressive self on the defensive end. The Cardinals played tentatively for 35 or so minutes against Wichita State in Saturday’s semifinal, afraid to get into foul trouble, and nearly paid for it with a loss. It’s hard to imagine the Cardinals winning if they can’t turn Michigan over better than they did the Shockers, and you have to believe Louisville point guard Peyton Siva needs to have a better game than the 1-for-9 shooting he offered Saturday. Louisville has the nation’s No. 1 defensive efficiency rating; Michigan is tops in offensive efficiency. Something gives here.

■ Michigan keys to victory: The last time we saw an opponent try to press Michigan with any sort of intensity, Virginia Commonwealth was getting pounded by 25 in the round of 32. Michigan needs a repeat performance against an even better press. No one protects the ball nationally like the Wolverines, and you figure guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. will shoot better than the combined 5-for-24 we saw against Syracuse on Saturday. Michigan did a terrific job making a below-average jump-shooting team in Syracuse take long jumpers. The Wolverines would be smart to follow a similar script defensively here.

■ Matchup to watch: Gorgiu Dieng against Mitch McGary. Yeah. It sounds crazy, given the skill at guard both teams own. The main reason many wanted this game was to see Siva and Russ Smith of Louisville against Burke and Hardaway in the open court, but don’t discount the importance each team’s big man might play. Dieng did nothing against Wichita State, but the Louisville junior arrived in Atlanta averaging 11 points, eight rebounds and 2.5 blocks for the tournament. McGary is a freshman who went for 25 points and 14 rebounds against Kansas center Jeff Withey in the Sweet 16.

■ Possible unsung hero: Nik Stauskas: It has been all-or-nothing of late for the Michigan freshman guard, who scored 22 in an Elite Eight win against Florida, then went scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting Saturday. But he’s a 45-percent shooter from distance and the sort of player who can become a Final Four hero when all the defensive attention is pointed elsewhere.

■ Key stat: In his team’s seven losses, Burke has averaged nearly 3.5 turnovers. For the season, he averages 2.2.

■ Quote to note: “Michigan, one day of preparation, very difficult. You have their press offense, the zone offense that changes to man, all the sets they run. So many different counters to their plays. They execute. They shoot the ball better than we do. It won’t be easy.” — Louisville coach Rick Pitino.

■ Ed Graney’s pick: Great players rarely have consecutive dud games, so you figure the stars will shine on both sides tonight. If guards ultimately make the biggest difference in such moments — and they usually do — Michigan has a distinct advantage. But Louisville is about grinding you down, about a shark smelling blood in the water, about producing the sort of runs no other team is capable of this season. Michigan has little to no bench, which isn’t how you beat the Cardinals. Louisville 67, Michigan 61.


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