ATLANTA – Michigan played and excelled in the Big Ten, considered the toughest conference in college basketball this season. The Wolverines spent five weeks at No. 2 in the Associated Press poll and were ranked No. 1 the week of Jan. 28.
Louisville will be favored in Monday night's national championship game at the Georgia Dome ,but to say Michigan has no chance would be absolutely foolish.
Michigan has the national player of the year in guard Trey Burke, who has matured and advanced during his sophomore season to the point that he is one of the most feared offensive threats in the nation. Burke is surrounded by young teammates, including freshman forward Mitch McCary, who has developed into a beast during postseason play.
Coach John Beilein may be new to this stage but he has a proven record as a head coach, a winner everywhere he has gone. This is an opportunity for him and his program. And the Wolverines have shown the ability to handle a variety of styles in this tournament. Michigan has never seen anything quite like Rick Pitino's Cardinals but the Wolverines have already dismissed VCU's havoc, the No. 1 seed (Kansas) in their region, and Pitino disciple Billy Donovan and his Florida Gators.
"Rick has a tremendous tree of coaches out there, so now we're playing the man himself who invented a lot of this jump and run, different types of traps and changing defenses," Beilein said. "There's been some preparation involved along the line. But seeing it firsthand the way Rick does it, there will be some uniqueness to it. We've just go to get ready the best we can."
Here are three ways Michigan can win the national championship.
From the amazing statistic department: Louisville has scored 30 percent of its points off turnovers this season. In five NCAA games, the Cardinals have maintained that remarkably well, scoring 25 percent off turnovers. This season, opponents have given the ball over to the Cardinals on 27.3 of their possessions. Ask Wichita State how those turnovers can impact a game. The Shockers went 26 minutes without a turnover Saturday, then had five on the next seven possessions. A 12-point lead quickly vanished. But the Wolverines can counter that by doing what they've done all season. Michigan turns it over on just 14.5 percent of its total possessions. That's the best in the country. Michigan had just two turnovers on the way to a 36-25 halftime lead against Syracuse Saturday. The Wolverines finished with 10, looking a little shaky against the fullcourt pressure Syracuse Jim Boehiem elected to use to get back into the game. Trey Burke, who has been gathering national player of the year hardware all week, has to navigate Louisville's press for the Wolverines to have a chance.
Burke repeats heroics
It must be overwhelming to arrive at the Final Four with your team and then hear your name called out as national player of the year all week long. Burke has felt the burden of leadership for Michigan all season but with that type of hype, the scrutiny is intense. Saturday night against Syracuse, Burke didn't necessarily live up to his billing. He made only 1 of 8 shots from the field and was held to seven points, his lowest output since the NCAA opener when he had six against South Dakota State (a 71-56 win for the Wolverines). Burke still contributed four assists, five rebounds and three steals against the Orange. Burke showed everyone what he is capable of in the Sweet 16 when he rallied the Wolverines from a 14-point deficit in the final seven minutes against Kansas. His 23-point, 10-assist performance against the Jayhawks might have been the best individual showing in this tournament. Michigan needs that Burke to show up against Louisville.
Beilein makes good adjustments
The coaching matchup weighs heavily in the favor of Louisville's Rick Pitino and that's simply based on history and experience. With a win over the Cardinals, John Beilein would become just the eighth coach in the last 30 years to win the championship in his first Final Four appearance. That list includes Steve Fisher, who led the Wolverines to their last tite in 1989. Beilein is 1-3 all-time against Pitino, with his only win coming as West Virginia coach in Morgantown in 2006. Pitino is the master of in-game adjustments, but Beilein has a variety of tricks up his sleeve as well. A crowd of about 75,000 in the Georgia Dome, an enormous TV audience and viewers around the world will be judging Beilein on a different stage. "It really helped that we just came from Dallas, playing in that big arena," Beilein said. "What I try to do is focus in as a coach and not even look around. You start looking around that place – I did for a minute – I'm not even going to look. This is incredible what I'm seeing in front of me."