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April 8, 2013

Game Preview: Michigan vs. Louisville

Opponent: Louisville
Record: 34-5 (14-4 Big East)
Head Coach: Rick Pitino (12th season, 309-111)
Seed: No. 1, Midwest Region
All-time Series: Louisville leads the series 2-0
Time and Television: April 8, 9:23 p.m., CBS
Point Spread: Louisville -4

In 1985, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino was given his first full-time head coaching gig at Providence. Just two seasons later, the Friars found themselves as America's underdog darling in the 1987 Final Four.

The point guard on that team? Florida head coach Billy Donovan.

The Wolverines outclassed Donovan's Gators 79-59 in an Elite Eight tilt during this year's magical run, and have conquered a who's who of college basketball's premier coaches en route to the program's first national title appearance since 1993.

They thrashed the Havoc defense of Shaka Smart and the VCU Rams 78-53, miraculously outlasted the pomp, circumstance, size and skill of Bill Self's Kansas squad 87-85 in overtime, and most recently stymied legendary, and salty, Syracuse boss Jim Boeheim's vaunted 2-3 zone in a 61-56 Final Four victory.

Still, the top-seeded Cardinals will provide the stoutest obstacle blocking U-M's first national title since 1989 - and it all starts with Pitino.

The coaching legend is making his seventh Final Four appearance, but has only tasted victory once in a national title game - a 76-67 victory over Boeheim's Orange to earn the 1996 crown as Kentucky's man in charge.

Now, Michigan coach John Beilein is presented the opportunity to earn a place among the Boeheims, Donovans, and Selfs of the college basketball world if he can lead his squad to one more win, and launch Ann Arbor into a celebratory frenzy.

As the old adage goes - to be the man, you have to beat the man. Beilein and Co. have already defeated three coaches with national title credentials, and must conquer one more to grasp one of the most historic wins in Michigan history.

Here is a closer look at the team that stands between the Wolverines and a national championship ...

Offense

Louisville, which fell to rival Kentucky in the Final Four a year ago, struggled offensively against Wichita State in its national semifinal matchup.

Finding itself down by as many as 12 in the second half, the Cardinal rallied behind a 20-point performance by junior wing Luke Hancock to squeak past the Shockers 72-68.

Junior guard Russ Smith, who has scored double digits in 35 games this year, has been unstoppable thus far in the NCAA Tournament. He has averaged an eye-popping 25.0 points per game, including a 31-point outburst over Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen.

Senior point guard Peyton Siva is also a critical member of the UofL backcourt, although the numbers might not explicate his importance. He is averaging just 8.6 points per game, but has added 4.6 assists against 2.2 turnovers, and is a true facilitator of the high-powered offense.

Louisville struggled in the post against the Shockers, which could induce immense issues with the recent revelation of Michigan freshman forward Mitch McGary. Sophomore forward Chane Behanan was effective with 10 points and grabbed nine boards in his last outing, but junior center Gorgui Dieng was held scoreless against WSU and has found himself in persistent foul trouble in his last two contests.

During the regular season, the up-tempo Cardinals led the Big East in scoring with 74.3 points per game and a +15.9 scoring margin.

Defense

Highly-decorated Michigan point guard Trey Burke will once again be the target of a unique Big East defensive scheme. Syracuse's 2-3 zone effectively kept Burke from penetrating the lane, but the sophomore was patient and helped set his teammates up with good looks. He finished the game with seven points, four assists and five rebounds against only one turnover.

Louisville's full-court, high-pressure defense is predicated on smothering skilled ballhandlers before they cross the timeline and forcing turnovers - they led the Big East with 10.8 steals per game and have forced an average of 18.6 turnovers during the tournament - but U-M is among the best ball-protecting teams in the nation, committing just 9.4 turnovers per game during the regular season.

Siva and Smith will be keyed on slowing down Burke and the high-octane Maize and Blue offense before it starts, and forcing Michigan's stellar backcourt to exert considerable energy just to get the ball past half court. The ability of junior guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., freshman guard Nik Stauskas and freshman wing Glenn Robinson III to hit shots and drive to the rim will be key in slicing through the pressure.

UofL led the big east in turnover margin (+5.9 per game) and recorded an NCAA Tournament-record 20 steals in its second round matchup against North Carolina A&T.

Although the Wolverines struggled mightily against Syracuse's full-court press late in their most recent game, they easily sliced through VCU's daunting Havoc defense. The recent emergence of diminutive freshman guard Spike Albrecht as a reliable, secondary ball handler could prove to be an enormous factor against Louisville's constantly nagging defense.

The Cardinals' offensive struggles against Wichita State greatly hindered the effectiveness of their defense, as they were unable to settle into their preferred irritating style of play that typically follows made baskets.

Michigan's ability to shut down the Louisville offense will be integral in circumventing UofL's defensive game plan, which should help lead to easy fast-break looks.

Pitino's squad has yielded just 60.8 points per game during its tournament run, but was outrebounded 35-32 in its semifinal matchup against the upstart Shockers.

From the Other Sideline

Russ Brown - CardinalSports.com: "Had fate taken a different turn, Louisville coach Rick Pitino might have been coaching Michigan instead of the Cardinals in Monday night's national championship game, or at least been the coach of the Wolverines for some period of time.

"During Sunday's Final Four press conferences, Pitino related a story about how he had agreed to become Michigan's coach before changing his mind and being persuaded by UofL athletic director Tom Jurich to move to Louisville instead when he decided to return to college coaching in 2001 after an unsuccessful stint with the Boston Celtics.

"His story -- entertaining, as most of Pitino's stories are -- involved a parable, lions, lambs, his wife Joanne, Las Vegas, a book and a staircase.

"In March of 2001, Pitino, who now has 663 career victories and will be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in September, might have become the Wolverines' coach if then-Michigan athletic director Bill Martin had not been out of the office when Pitino called. Instead, Martin was playing either squash or racketball and didn't want to be disturbed."


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