ATLANTA -- For almost all of the NCAA tournament, there is at least some extended time between when a team wins and moves on and when it learns its next-round opponent -- time to digest, time to analyze, time to project.
The Final Four doesn't roll like that. Within two hours, Saturday's early winner learns who it will be facing Monday night, and if you're eager like me, it doesn't take you all that long to want to turn away from the semifinals and take the first look at the season's final, and most important, matchup. Call it kid-on-Christmas-Eve syndrome.
Let's open that one present a little early and take that first look at Monday's national championship game -- a strength-on-strength matchup as good as any in recent memory. Here's what to look for:
The nation's best offense and the nation's best defense, together at last. If you are a fan of efficiency statistics -- and "fandom" doesn't really come into it, because that's like saying you're a "fan" of field goal percentage or Fahrenheit -- you are well aware what we've got on our hands Monday night. But if you don't know, now you know: When Michigan and Louisville square off in the cavernous Georgia Dome, we will get to watch the nation's best offense and the nation's best defense at the same time, on the same possessions, for all of 40 minutes. (In case you can't tell, I am excited. This is very exciting.)
Per Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, the nation's most efficient defense is Louisville, which is allowing just .824 points per possession on the season after Saturday's victory over Wichita State. Michigan is the nation's No. 1-ranked offense, scoring 1.22 points per trip.
The Cardinals have been the nation's best defense the entire season. Michigan has frequently been among its best offenses, although it spent much of the season just behind Indiana, which usually held the offensive efficiency crown. But that has changed in March, and both Michigan and Louisville survived nervy challenges from Syracuse and Wichita State, respectively, Saturday night, and the end result is the best possible offense-defense matchup in all of college basketball in the national final. Yes please.
But wait -- there's more. The whole strength-on-strength bit doesn't stop at "offense" versus "defense;" that would be far too simple. No, no, we can be much more granular here.
See, the reason Louisville's defense is so good -- the reason Louisville is so good, period, actually -- is its ability to force turnovers. The Cardinals forced turnovers more frequently this season than any other team but VCU, whose defense was never as good (and nowhere near as complete) as Louisville. The Cardinals have forced opponents to cough it up on 27.3 percent of their possessions this season (and have averaged 47 deflections per game in the NCAA tournament), frequently on the press, where they create a high percentage of their points and, generally speaking, put even the best teams in the country in a blender. Five minutes (and sometimes 30 seconds) later, those teams look up at the scoreboard and wonder how it happened that the Cards built a 12-point lead so quickly. They're just ... brutal.
But here's the thing: There is no team in the country better suited to handle that deflection-creating chaos than the Michigan Wolverines. John Beilein's team turned it over less frequently -- on just 14.5 percent of its total possessions -- than any other team in the country this season. It happens to have this guy named Trey Burke, the newly crowned national player of the year, who is not only the best guard in the country but probably the savviest -- a guy you'd fully trust to navigate Louisville's press and get himself or his teammates a good shot on the other end.
So, which prevails: Michigan's Burke-led offense? Or Louisville's pressurized defense? From a strict basketball perspective, does it get any better than that?
Rick Pitino and John Beilein's vastly different coaching odysseys collide. Pitino began his head-coaching career in 1978. Beilein began his in 1975. Pitino's first job came at Boston University. Beilein's was as the head man at Newfane (N.Y) High School. In 1983, Pitino became an assistant for the New York Knicks; that was Beilein's first year at Le Moyne, following five years at Erie Community College and Nazareth. (Beilein, curiously enough, has never been an assistant coach.) Pitino would go on to coach Providence to the Final Four, become the Knicks' head coach and then, in 1989, begin perhaps his most famous coaching stint, at Kentucky. Beilein coached at Le Moyne until 1992, when he got the job at Canisius. In 1997, Pitino got the Boston Celtics job; in 1997, Beilein got the job at Richmond.
You get the point. Beilein is hardly anonymous these days, and he hasn't been for a while; his incredibly fun West Virginia stint made certain of that. He is widely respected as a sheer basketball tactician and has been for 15 years. But compared to Pitino, one of the most accomplished coaches in the sport, the guy with the perfectly cut suits and the Italian loafers, Beilein is practically John Doe.
Pitino is on the cusp of becoming the first man to win a national title at two schools and probably the first guy to win a national title two days after a horse he owned won the Santa Anita Derby. Beilein is trying to take Michigan back to the mountaintop after two decades spent in the hoops wilderness. He can surely identify.