The ladders were in place. There were scissors, too, I imagine. But there would be no photograph of Rick Pitino or any of the Louisville players with a piece of the net, not from Madison Square Garden or Lucas Oil Stadium.
Pitino decided after winning the Big East Tournament his team would wait a few weeks to get their nylon souvenir. And so the cutting supplies went unused in Indianapolis after Louisville dispatched Duke to reach the Final Four.
A bold move, but the Cards are one win from it looking like a genius motivational ploy.
Standing in their way are the young Wolverines. Remember Kentucky last year, and how everyone made such a big deal about all those freshmen winning the national title? Michigan is younger than those Wildcats, according to KenPom.com’s measure, which uses eligibility class weighted by minutes played (a freshman has no years of experience, a sophomore has one, etc.). Michigan’s weighted experience is just .73 years; Kentucky’s was .77. Both were the sixth youngest teams in the country and the youngest, by far, in the NCAA Tournament.
Tonight’s game figures to be most exciting when Michigan has the ball. Michigan has the top-ranked offense in the country; Louisville is No. 1 in defensive efficiency. The Cards are second in the nation in turnover percentage, but Michigan already dismantled the best pressing team in the country, VCU. There are two major differences between VCU and Louisville on the defensive side. First of all, even when Michigan breaks the press, 6’11” Gorgui Dieng is waiting at the end to block shots. Secondly, Louisville does not rely on its press to get stops or fuel its offense, at least not to the degree VCU does. Both Wichita and Oregon protected the ball pretty well against Louisville and still lost. Careless turnovers are a sure way to lose to the Cards; taking care of the ball doesn’t guarantee victory.
While Player of the Year Trey Burke got lost among Syracuse’s trees, he will be able to look his opponents in the eye tonight. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith are both Burke’s height, 6’. One of those two will have to guard a much taller player, 6’6” Tim Hardaway, Jr. or Nik Stauskas. Those two Wolverines’ ability to knock down outside shots will be critical.
Michigan has looked better in their second game at a venue throughout the Tournament. While they played well against South Dakota State and Kansas, they were lights out against VCU and Florida, the second game in Auburn Hills and Arlington, respectively. After a shaky offensive performance against Syracuse, will Michigan’s shooters be more accustomed to the Georgia Dome? They will probably need at least two of the Burke-Hardaway-Stauskas combo to knock down threes in order to pull off the upset.
That is what makes both of these teams dangerous: multiple weapons. Michigan has survived poor shooting games from one or two of its starters, just as Louisville has been successful despite inconsistent play from Siva and others. Michigan struggled in February when too much was placed on Burke’s shoulders. The Wolverines have recaptured the balance they had when they were No. 1 and once again look like an offensive juggernaut.
Watching last night’s women’s Final Four games in New Orleans, I was impressed with the design on the court. The men’s Final Four was in New Orleans last year, too, but the court wasn’t nearly as cool. The women’s court in Denver last year was creative as well. The men’s court in Atlanta is very tame. Also, the women still leave the schools’ logos on the court for the opening rounds, while the mens’ Tournament courts look identical across the country. Here’s what the NCAA had to say about this: “We wanted the consistency, so that when fans were moving from site to site, watching on television, they knew it was the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament,” said L. J. Wright, the director of the men’s tournament. Yes, because without the blue NCAA logo at midcourt during the Michigan-Kansas game I would have thought I was watching the NIT quarterfinals.
I’m proud to say that this year’s court, just like the past seven Final Four floors, was made in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The last word
So what will Jim Nantz say after the final buzzer? I’ve been thinking about this for weeks and mentioned Nantz’s corny calls in my “32 Reasons to Love the NCAA Tournament” article. If Louisville wins, I think Nantz should go with, “The national championship trophy stays in Kentucky! Louisville wins the title.” If Michigan wins, it’s a tough call. I think he probably references the Fab Five—“There’s a new Fab Five in Ann Arbor! Michigan, 2013 national champs!”—but I can’t think of a pun. If Burke plays really well, he might say something like, “The national player of the year is now a national champion!” but that would be lame. Then again, after last year, I wouldn’t put it past Nantz to say, “Hail to the Victors! Michigan is your 2013 national champ!”
And I’d be completely fine with that.