ATLANTA – There’s something to be said for being good, getting on a roll, and maybe mixing in a little luck. The Louisville Cardinals are having that type of weekend.
In addition to holding on to defeat Wichita State 72-68 Saturday in the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament, coach Rick Pitino is co-owner of the horse Goldencents, which won the Santa Anita Derby in Arcadia, Calif. Now the horse will go on to be a favorite at the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville.
Not a bad day.
Monday night’s national championship pits Michigan (31-7) against No. 1 overall seed Louisville (34-5). The Wolverines are generally considered the most efficient offensive team in the nation. Louisville has posted the best defensive efficiency of any team since Ken Pomeroy has been tracking the numbers since 2003.
“We’re going to have a quick, quick prep,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “It’s a difficult one too because Louisville throws so many things at you. We’ve got to get ready the best way we can, but still make sure we’re fresh.”
Louisville has won 15 consecutive games and 18 of its last 19. During that time the Cardinals have limited opponents to 38.4 percent field goal percent shooting and have averaged a plus-16.5 scoring margin.
That’s a lot for Michigan to overcome. Here are three reasons why Louisville will win Monday night.
The Cardinals Are Russ-diculous
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall perfectly described Louisville guard Russ Smith as a “contortionist.” With all due respect to Michigan’s Trey Burke, the national player of the year, Smith was the engine that could in Saturday’s semifinal round - and he has been throughout the NCAA tournament, averaging 25 points and three steals. Michigan may not have anyone who can defend Smith, keep him from driving into the lane and attacking the rim. Smith got off to a bad start against Wichita State by missing four free throws in the first three minutes. He’s an 82 percent free throw shooter who had never missed more than three free throws in one game this season. He ended up 5-for-12 from the line, 4-for-11 from 3-point range, 6-for-17 from the field and still had 21 points. If he gets that many shots against Michigan, he certainly will make more and Louisville will win. He is 39 of 78 from the field in five 2013 NCAA games.
Cool Hand Luke
Junior swingman Luke Hancock has been an enormous spark off the bench for the Cardinals in the tournament and his 20 points against Wichita State just fell shy of his season high of 22 against Notre Dame on Feb. 9. Hancock was Louisville’s most efficient offensive player Saturday, hitting 6 of 9 shots from the field, going 3-for-5 from 3-point range and 5-for-7 from the free throw line. Even without injured Kevin Ware, Louisville’s bench outscored the Wichita State subs 34-9 as the Cardinals won 72-68. “If you saw him in practice, you wouldn’t be surprised by his performance,” Russ Smith said of Hancock. “He puts on a show every day in practice. His hard work paid off, especially on the biggest stage. I’m so happy he had the game of his life.”
Best Team, Best Coach
It sounds simplistic, but it’s the basic truth. That’s no knock against Michigan, an outstanding team that plays efficiently on offense, or coach John Beilein, who has certainly stepped up on a bigger stage. Pitino has set himself apart in so many ways and it is easy to argue he is the best tournament coach in college basketball in recent years. He is the fifth coach to take two different schools to the national championship game, joining Frank McGuire (St. John’s, North Carolina), Larry Brown (UCLA, Kansas), Roy Williams (Kansas, North Carolina) and John Calipari (Memphis, Kentucky). And a Louisville win would make Pitino the first coach to win a national title at two different schools. This Louisville team, which lost in the national semifinals last season, was built to win it all. That has been the Cardinals’ goal all season. The injury to Kevin Ware has brought the players together even more in a unified goal to win it for their teammate. It’s hard to imagine the Cardinals letting that opportunity slip away.