March Madness comes to an end tonight, as Michigan and Louisville face off in the NCAA tournament title game.
While Louisville earned the tournament's top overall seed and was considered the favorite before play began, Michigan is hardly an underdog. At one point this year, they earned the top slot in The Associated Press rankings. Both teams have a legitimate chance to take home the trophy tonight in a matchup that pits Louisville's top-ranked defense against Michigan's top-ranked offense.
Here's how each team could win.
Louisville leads the nation in defensive efficiency. Their quick, athletic guards pace a defense that loves to press and force opponents to defeat themselves through sloppy play. They forced the second-most turnovers per game of any team this year, averaging 11 per contest; they forced 27 in their opening-round game alone.
Steals are the Cardinals' calling card. Guard Russ Smith set a tournament record with eight steals of his own in that opening-round blowout. He and fellow guard Peyton Siva, Louisiville's all-time steals leader, have combined for more than 160 takeaways on the season.
Louisville is also known to mix up their defensive strategy mid-game, adapting to and confounding opponents in the process.
"When Florida shredded Louisville's zone in the first half, Pitino ripped up the game plan and went to a pressure man-to-man," notes USA Today's David LeonMoore. "Florida, 8-for-11 on threes in the first half, went 0-for-9 in the second half."
Louisville's game is more than just defense. They also boast a deep bench that, even without reserve guard Kevin Ware, who shattered his tibia earlier this postseason, can pick up the slack when the starters go cold. Eight different players have scored double-digits for the Cardinals during the tournament. On Saturday, with most of the starting lineup struggling to score, Luke Hancock came off the bench to notch 20 points and propel the Cardinals into the final.
On top of all that, Louisville has proven time and again that they can overcome whatever is thrown their way.
"In the end, it’s more than stats," says NCAA.com's Douglas Kroll. "There's an X-factor with this team."
As Kroll points out, the Cardinals trailed by 16 more than halfway through the Big East Championship, but came back to win. And the score was tight when Ware demolished his leg in a game against Duke, but the Cardinals rallied after that and went on to win by 22 points.
Louisville may have the nation's top-ranked defense, but Michigan boasts the top-ranked offense. And crucially, Michigan has shown an ability to handle the kind of frenetic pressure that Louisville will bring tonight. Against VCU's "havoc" defense — which helped the Rams advance to the Final Four as an eleven seed in 2011 — Michigan committed only 12 turnovers.
"Everybody on the Wolverines' roster can handle, pass, and shoot," says Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis, noting how Michigan handled VCU's press. "For all the speed on this team, the players are always under control."
Michigan also excels in the half-court game. Their guards can carve up defenses, and, if there's no play at the rim, kick the ball beyond the arc, where the team shot a healthy 38.3 percent on the year.
Leading that offense is Trey Burke, who on Sunday won the Naismith Award, given to college basketball's best player. With that, Burke has now swept every major award given annually to college's best player.
Also key to Michigan's success could be the emergence of center Mitch McGary, who rode the bench much of the season only to come on strong in the tournament. McGary has scored in double-digits every game this postseason, dropping 25 in a close win over regional number-one seed Kansas.
"My teammates are beginning to trust me a lot more and my confidence level has skyrocketed," McGary said of his recent success. "Them trusting me so much and having confidence in me on the court, I bring the energy and they feed off that that."
McGary has averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds throughout the tournament, according to ESPN. As Michigan's newfound weapon, he'll take some pressure off the rest of the offense.
"The few times when Michigan lost this season, it was because the Wolverines lacked a scoring presence in the post and were unable to make up a bad shooting night on the offensive glass," says Davis. "McGary takes care of both these problems."