College Basketball Nation: Peyton Siva

Take Two: Rick Pitino's top 10 players

September, 4, 2013
Editor's Note: Three legendary college basketball coaches -- Jerry Tarkanian, Rick Pitino and Guy Lewis -- take center stage this weekend as the trio is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. We'll be devoting a day to each as we examine what made them HOF-worthy. Here is Tuesday's tribute to Pitino.

During his career, Rick Pitino has earned two national championships, led three schools to the Final Four (only coach in Division I history to achieve that) and won 664 games.

The soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach has also molded some of the most talented athletes in recent college basketball history. Here is my take on the top 10 college players Pitino has coached, while my colleague Eamonn Brennan counters with his own list:

  1. [+] EnlargeDelk/McCarty
    AP Photo/Morry GashRick Pitino's 1996 title team churned out 11 players who eventually got drafted.
    Tony Delk, Kentucky: If we’re just talking collegiate production, then Delk deserves this slot. He averaged 17.8 points per game during the 1995-96 season and 14.2 ppg throughout his four-year career at Kentucky. Pitino had multiple (future) pros on that 1996 national title team, but Delk was that squad’s best player, especially in the postseason. He was a consensus All-American, SEC Player of the Year, and the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
  2. Jamal Mashburn, Kentucky: He didn’t win a title, but he anchored one of Pitino’s most important Kentucky squads. The 1992-93 Wildcats reached the Final Four, where they lost by three points to Michigan and the Fab Five in overtime. Mashburn, a consensus All-American that year, scored 26 points (10-for-18) in the game. That achievement provided more evidence that Kentucky would be a player on the national scene again following a crippling scandal under former coach Eddie Sutton.
  3. Antoine Walker, Kentucky: In recent years, he has been plagued by highly publicized financial problems. But Walker was a star in his prime. He was the MVP of the SEC tournament as a freshman in 1995. And he averaged 15.2 ppg for the Kentucky squad that secured Pitino’s first national championship in 1996. Walker was a member of the all-SEC first team that year, too. He stayed only two seasons but they were some the most fruitful individual of Pitino’s career.
  4. Reece Gaines, Louisville: Last season, Dwyane Wade called Gaines the best player he faced in college. That’s how good the Wisconsin native was throughout his four years at Louisville. Gaines didn’t fulfill his potential after he was picked 15th in the 2003 NBA draft. But he was a beast in Pitino’s first two seasons with the Cardinals. He averaged 21.0 ppg in 2001-02 and 17.9 ppg in 2002-03. He was a third-team All-American as a senior.
  5. Ron Mercer, Kentucky: He scored 20 points in Kentucky’s national title game victory in 1996. But he was a true star in the 1996-97 campaign, Pitino’s last at the school. Mercer was the SEC Player of the Year and a consensus All-American that season. With the sophomore on the floor, Kentucky nearly retained its crown but ultimately lost to Arizona in the national championship game. Mercer scored 13 points in that matchup, his last game as a collegiate player.
  6. Billy Donovan, Providence: Sure, he has won two national titles as head coach of the Florida Gators. But in the 1980s, “Billy the Kid” was a star for a Providence program that improved once Pitino arrived in 1985. Donovan averaged 15.1 ppg during the 1985-86 campaign. He averaged 20.6 ppg in 1986-87, the year the Friars reached the Final Four. He’s recognized as one of the greatest players in Providence history, and he’s certainly one of the best players Pitino has ever coached at this level.
  7. Peyton Siva, Louisville: Siva represented the character of the 2013 national championship squad that won the crown in Atlanta last season. He was a gritty, quick, smart point guard who anchored Pitino’s second national championship squad a year after guiding the program to the Final Four. He also ended his career by earning back-to-back Big East tournament MVPs. And he’s the program’s all-time leader in steals.
  8. Derek Anderson, Kentucky: He started at Ohio State but eventually transferred to Kentucky in time to help the Wildcats win a national championship in 1996. Anderson recorded 11 points, four rebounds and one assist in 16 minutes of action in Kentucky’s win over Syracuse in the national title game. His senior season was affected by a serious knee injury. But he still managed to average 17.7 ppg in 19 games that season. He was also named to the all-SEC second team.
  9. Francisco Garcia, Louisville: The Bronx native was critical as Pitino coached Louisville to the Final Four in 2005, the program’s first trip in nearly two decades. Pitino was the first coach to claim three Final Fours with three different programs. Without Garcia, it probably wouldn’t have happened. He averaged 15.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game that season. He’s one of the most versatile players that Pitino has coached at the collegiate level.
  10. Walter McCarty, Kentucky: He was one of Pitino’s most consistent players and probably his best singer, too. McCarty averaged 11.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game the season that Pitino secured his first national championship. He also hit 46.7 percent of his 3-pointers during the 1995-96 season. His time under Pitino also fueled his coaching endeavors. He recently joined Brad Stevens’ staff as an assistant with the Boston Celtics.

Video: Siva has high hopes for Cardinals

August, 28, 2013
AM ET's Jeff Goodman breaks down former Louisville PG Peyton Siva praising this year's team.
ATLANTA -- The song wasn't good enough, not this time.

The spliced moments of highlight dunks and emotional victories set to the soppy strains of Luther Vandross seemed almost trite in comparison to what was unfolding in real time Monday night at the Georgia Dome.

There, behind the Louisville bench, sat the Hancock family -- father Bill, mother Van, brothers Will, Matt, Robert and Stephen, plus sister Melissa. Their son and brother Luke had just been named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, the first bench player in the history of the NCAA tournament to get the award.

Bill is gravely ill but he willed himself to attend the Final Four despite a body that fought him every step of the way. Luke's first stop after Louisville topped Michigan 82-76 for its first national championship since 1986 was his father's embrace.

Not far from Luke and Bill was Peyton Siva, practically jumping over the media table to embrace his family. His dad, Peyton Sr., dressed in an airbrushed Kevin Ware tank top, was there celebrating and fist pumping.

Less than 10 years ago and lost in a haze of drugs, he wanted to kill himself, pulled back from the brink by his 13-year-old namesake.

In the middle of the court, on the makeshift trophy-presentation stage, gathered the extended Pitino family -- kids, in-laws, grandchildren, the whole gang. Front and center sat Rick Pitino, now a newly minted Hall of Famer, a Kentucky Derby horse owner and the first man to take two schools to a national title. Only three years ago, he was a punch line mired in an embarrassing scandal. His wife, Joanne, sat alongside him, their legs dangling over the edge like little kids while everyone made Louisville L's with their fingers.

On Wednesday, the same day Pitino got the call from the Hall, the couple celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary, 37 years of loss and triumph, strength and struggle.

And at one end of the court, there was Ware on his crutches, the net lowered to accommodate him and his crutches, making the final snip on the only nets Louisville has cut all season.

There are shining moments that have the shelf life of a video, and there are life moments that never die, shared by a group of players thrown together to form a team but that, if they're lucky, become something more.

"These are my brothers," Siva said. "My brothers."

College basketball's latest national champion is a collection of incredulous moments. One emotional journey is more improbable than the next, all steered by a man whose life journey is perhaps more halved by pain and joy than any other coach in the game.

For Dana O'Neil's full column, click here.
HancockRobert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsLuke Hancock is the first bench player to be the Final Four's most outstanding player.

ATLANTA -- Beginning exactly one year ago today, we've known, or thought we've known, what Louisville was. Louisville was the best defensive team in the country.

That's usually as far as it went. The Cardinals dominated defensively in 2012, and after their hyper-stingy, brick-compensating defense carried them to an ugly-but-effective Final Four run and nearly every player of note returned for 2012-13, it was pretty easy to peg Rick Pitino's team.

Louisville would struggle to score. It would guard like crazy. Its fans would hope that was enough.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Atlanta: The Cardinals started scoring. And scoring. And scoring. By the time the confetti covered the Georgia Dome floor Monday night, by the time Peyton Siva and Russ Smith and the rest of the national champions finished their thrilling 82-76 victory over Michigan and their One Shining Moment, it was time to be real about a couple of things.

The first: That was a great basketball game.

The second: Louisville was a great offensive team, too.

"You know, a lot of times when you get to the Final Four, you get to a championship, the game's not always great, not always pretty," Pitino said Monday night. "This was a great college basketball game.

"They are a tremendous offensive team. Fortunately for us, when we started this tournament, and Luke [Hancock] started playing a lot more minutes, we became a great half-court offensive basketball team. And tonight was as good as it gets."

The man speaks the truth. In defiance of trends, easy characterizations and well-entrenched narrative, Louisville won the 2012-13 national title because its offense was good enough to best the best offensive team in the country. Here's how.

Two words: Luke Hancock. You don't have to dig too deep into the scouting reports to figure out why Hancock was named the 2013 NCAA tournament most outstanding player or why he was so crucial to Louisville's offense in its two Georgia Dome wins. In two Final Four games, Hancock shot 8-of-10 from 3-point range. On Monday night, he went a perfect 5-of-5, and if that wasn't already good enough, each shot carried with it the maximum possible impact. The first four came during the final minutes of the first half against Michigan, after Spike Albrecht had replaced unanimous national player of the year Trey Burke, who was saddled with his second foul at the 11-minute mark.

Instead of scraping by without its star, Michigan surged, because Albrecht had one of the most insane -- or at least one of the most unlikely -- halves in tournament history. He poured in 17 points in 16 minutes on 6-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-4 from 3. Albrecht's final bucket of the half, a layup with 3:55 remaining, gave the Wolverines a 33-21 lead. Michigan looked like it could get to the half with a double-digit lead despite having Burke for just six total minutes. Pitino took a timeout.

What happened in the next three minutes would define the rest of the game. At 3:33, Hancock made two free throws. At 2:59, he made a 3-pointer from the right wing. At 2:38, he made another, same spot. At 1:53, he made another. At 0:59, another. He had cut Michigan's Albrecht-infused lead to just 36-35. It was like Albrecht never happened.

Hancock's play in the second half was just as important. He made three assists in the middle of the half, he sank his fifth 3 to put Louisville up 10 with 3:27 left to play and his two free throws at the 29-second mark pushed the Cardinals' threatened lead back to six points, a deficit insurmountable even for Burke and the Wolverines.

Hancock was the hero in the final minutes of Saturday's shaky win over Wichita State, too, and so his final line for the Final Four weekend looked like this: 42 points in 62 minutes on 11-of-15 from the field, 12-of-17 from the free throw line, 8-of-10 from beyond the arc. You can empty the thesaurus of adjectives and not come close to describing how good, or how important, he was. And all off the bench.

Best of all, Hancock was able to post that performance for the ages in front of his ailing father, an emotional angle to the George Mason transfer's already remarkable story.

"It's been a long road," Hancock said. "There's really no way to describe how I feel that my dad was here."

On Monday night, after the Louisville players finished addressing the media, the NCAA moderator read off a remarkable stat: Hancock had become the first bench player in the history of the tournament to win most outstanding player. When he heard his name, he paused. As the moderator finished reading the stat, Hancock nodded nonchalantly -- as if to say: Yep, that sounds about right. It couldn't have been more fitting.

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Siva carved up Michigan's defense on his way to 18 points and five assists.
Thing is? Louisville's offense was already really good. Hancock's description-defying Final Four performance would boost any offense regardless of the context, but it also could serve to obscure the fact that the Cardinals had been great on the offensive end of the floor for much of the season and certainly throughout the NCAA tournament.

To wit: In their first three tournament games against North Carolina A&T, Colorado State and Oregon, the Cardinals posted 1.18 points per possession. Hancock scored just 17 of them, in 18, 19 and 22 minutes, respectively. And, as ESPN Insider John Gasaway wrote in advance of the title game Insider, those points came despite opponents turning it over on just 18 percent of their possessions. Those games weren't of the narrative-friendly, Louisville-forces-turnovers-and-that's-how-it-scores variety. They were just great offensive performances, pure and simple.

That said, that doesn't mean Louisville wasn't happy to force turnovers whenever possible; on Saturday night, after a near-flawless first 34 minutes, Wichita State's seven turnovers in the final six minutes were a huge factor in the Cards' eventual comeback win.

But Monday was a different story: Michigan, the least turnover-prone team in the country, turned it over at that pre-Final Four rate (18.5 percent) and scored 1.17 points per trip. Louisville scored 1.26. And there you have it.

Oh, and before we forget: Russ Smith was awesome. No doubt about it, Smith had one of his worst games of the season Monday night. He finished 3-of-16 from the field, including 1-of-6 from 3. He committed the usual handful of questionable and/or poorly timed fouls, and his turnovers, particularly one in crunch time, gave the impression that Bad Russ, the dark side of Russdiculous, was once more rearing his ugly head.

That would have been sad. Smith has had an immense individual season on both ends of the floor -- the rare star as good defensively as he was scoring. Smith averaged 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game this season, and managed to post an offensive rating of 110.0 despite high usage (32.1) and shot (32.6) rates (which typically hurt players' efficiency). There were few sights in the game as fun as Smith tearing the ball away from an opponent, deciding in a split-second -- no matter what the defense -- that he was getting it to the rim and then doing exactly that, usually in mind-blowing fashion.

But Smith's Russ-iest moments came when the lights were brightest, none more so in the regular season than in South Bend, Ind., where the Cardinals lost in five overtimes. Smith's silly-play-to-crucial-moment ratio (which is a real stat I just made up) achieved previously unseen levels that night, when everyone tuned in to the featured prime-time game and learned all they thought they needed to know about Smith.

The Final Four was like that, too. Russdiculous didn't play well Saturday and was even worse Monday, and many casual fans might remember his season for that. But for most of the past five months, his breakneck genius was the main reason Louisville's offense worked so well. It would be a shame to forget that.

The Cardinals didn't win with defense. They didn't need to. There were many impressive things about this Louisville team: the way it rallied around injured guard Kevin Ware and won the national title without him, how quickly Gorgui Dieng turned from a raw shot-blocker into an all-around player, Siva's screen-exploiting ability to slice defenses in half, Chane Behanan's strongman work on the offensive boards, how rapidly it turned defense into offense, how casually it erased daunting deficits, how Pitino often seemed to move his matchup zone around like telekinetic putty, unleashing traps and shifts like a wild-eyed conductor.

But perhaps the most impressive thing of all is this: In 2012, Louisville finished the season ranked No. 1 in efficiency defense and No. 105 on offense. In 2013, it again wielded the nation's No. 1 defense.

This time, over 35 wins and five losses, the Cardinals' offense scored 1.18 points per trip -- good for fifth-best in the country. And on Monday night, good enough to beat the best at its own game.

Afterward, Pitino called his team's exhilarating victory the product of "two great offensive teams doing battle."

He was right. Lo and behold, for everything else Louisville was this season, it was that too -- a great offensive team. And now it's the national champion.

What a mighty difference 12 months can make.

For Luke Hancock, a blaze of glory

April, 9, 2013
ATLANTA -- Luke Hancock wouldn't let go of the national championship trophy.

He had it in his arms at the podium. He carried it with him down to do more interviews. He walked back to the locker room, clutching it close to him.

The national title belongs to all of Louisville, to the Cardinals, to coach Rick Pitino, to everyone on the team, including the iconic Kevin Ware.

But this trophy, the culmination of 27 years since their last title, doesn't get back to the Cardinal nation without Hancock.

Seriously, who had him in their most-outstanding-player bracket? Nobody. Hancock, the onetime George Mason cast-off, was the catalyst for Louisville and the deserved most outstanding player. He had the honor of being the first non-starter to win the award -- not bad to get a first in the 75th year of the event.

"It's unbelievable," said Hancock, who had a Stanley Cup playoffs-like beard working in this NCAA tournament. "All the credit goes to my teammates. I just tried to play off Russ [Smith] and Peyton [Siva] as much as I can. They require so much attention sometimes. It's kind of unbelievable. I don't know. This is crazy."

[+] EnlargeLuke Hancock
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallLuke Hancock scored 42 points in the Final Four, including 22 in Louisville's win over Michigan.
Hancock scored 22 points off the bench in Louisville's 82-76 victory over Michigan on Monday night in one of the best national title games in the past two decades. Hancock didn't miss a 3-pointer, making all five attempts. He was money at the foul line, making 7 of 10. He didn't turn the ball over.

He also scored 20 points in Saturday's semifinal victory over Wichita State, making three 3s.

Hancock did all this while riding an emotional wave that few his age are built to handle.

He was a rock when he comforted Ware after the gruesome compound fracture in the first half of Louisville's Elite Eight win over Duke on March 31. He was here this week, dealing with angst during his greatest athletic moments as his ailing father, Bill, battled an undisclosed illness. Bill and his wife, Van, witnessed Hancock's quick shooting here in the Final Four.

"I couldn't have thought of anything better for him," Louisville teammate Tim Henderson said. "To be able to do that and have his dad witness it. It's incredible. It was like it was meant to be.

"Stuff like this happens all the time. You always have that player that goes under the radar and they just need that one big stage to shine. Luke got on the stage and he showed his stuff. I’m going to tell my grandkids I played with him. He’s a Louisville legend right now."

That's some heady stuff. But it's deserved. This is a player who never dreamed he would be in this position when he signed with George Mason.

"I wasn't recruited real high out of high school," Hancock said. "I went to prep school and picked up several offers. George Mason recruited me; coach [Jim] Larranaga made me feel like I was home at George Mason. So I went there. Then I ended up needing to transfer when he left.

"[The Louisville staff] made me feel like this was a home, that we'd have a chance to win a national title. I'm so excited for this team to be in this situation. It's been a long road. There's really no way to describe how I feel that my dad was here. It's hard to put into words. I'm so excited that he was here; it just means a lot."

Hancock was the catalyst for the Cardinals in their Big East tournament victory. He was the shooter who had to make shots here at the Final Four. Michigan's Spike Albrecht was the talk of the first half with 17 points, but he didn't score in the second.

Hancock had stamina, was consistent and made more plays that mattered in each of the two games.

"It was their four shooters against Luke," Pitino said. "Luke more than held his own."

Hancock grabbed the moment, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The points, the trophy and the title won't solve his father's illness. But Bill Hancock was there to witness his son's greatest athletic achievement. The memories Luke Hancock has, he owns them forever. And in a week in which he showed his maturity and compassion for the sports world to see, he was more than the most outstanding player of a two-game event; he was a true mensch -- a person with integrity and honor when it mattered most.

Louisville's victory by the numbers

April, 9, 2013
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLouisville's ability to finish at the rim made a big difference at game's end.

Perfection was the story for a Louisville team that lived up to its No. 1 overall seeding in the NCAA tournament.

The Cardinals won their third national title (against no defeats), keyed by a perfect shooting performance from long range by an unlikely source.

Let’s run through some of the statistical highlights of the Cardinals' first NCAA tournament championship since 1986.

The history

Louisville ended the season on a 16-game winning streak. The Cardinals became the eighth school to win at least three national championships and the third overall No. 1 seed to win a national championship.

The Cardinals went 27 years between title victories, the second-longest drought by a team that has won multiple championships (Kansas went 36 seasons).

Rick Pitino became the first coach to win a Division I title with two schools (he won with Kentucky in 1996). This was Pitino’s 664th career win, tying legendary coach John Wooden for 25th all time.

Key to the game: Points in the paint

Louisville attempted 23 of its 35 second-half field goals in the paint, making 11 of those shots.

Peyton Siva and Chane Behanan combined to score 24 of Louisville’s 34 paint points, 18 of which came in the second half.

Siva’s 12 points in the paint were his second-most in any game in the last four NCAA tournaments (scored 14 in 2012 versus Davidson).

Also key: Louisville held Michigan to two second-chance points in the second half Monday after allowing 13 to the Wolverines in the first half.

Hancock’s perfection

Final Four Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock finished with 22 points and was 5-for-5 from 3-point range.

That’s the most makes without a miss on 3-pointers in a Division I title game. The previous mark of three was shared by Taurean Green (2007 Florida) and Wayne Ellington (2009 North Carolina), each of whom won a national title that year.

Siva a difference-maker

Siva starred for Louisville, particularly in the second half.

His box score line put him in impressive championship company.

Siva finished with 18 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals, the first player to hit all of those benchmarks in a national championship game since steals became an official stat in 1986.

He's the first player with an 18-6-5 combo in a title game since Derrick Rose in 2008.

Burke, Michigan elite in defeat

Trey Burke became the third Wooden Award winner to lose in the national championship game. The other two players were Larry Bird and Elton Brand.

Michigan shot 52.1 percent from the field, the highest field goal percentage by a losing team in the national championship since Georgetown in 1985 (54.7 percent).

Early on, that was keyed by Spike Albrecht, who scored a career-high 17 points and went 4-for-5 from 3-point range. Albrecht went 9-for-10 from 3-point range in the tournament, just shy of matching Sam Cassell’s mark for most 3-pointers in a tournament without a miss (nine for Florida State in 1993).

Michigan fell to 1-5 all-time in national title games. The Wolverines' .167 winning percentage is the worst of any team with at least five championship game appearances. The five losses are third-most all time.
Luke Hancock's hot shooting night won him Most Outstanding Player honors.

ATLANTA -- The Louisville Cardinals are your 2013 national champions after beating Michigan 82-76.

Overview: It was everything a national title game should be. Great offense, great pace, great performances, great stories and, having withstood all of it, a great national champion: Louisville.

An amazing and surprising first half was followed by a more conventional, but no less entertaining, second. It was one that kept the intrigue bubbling right up to the final minute.

Luke Hancock finished with 22 points on 5-of-6 shooting, Peyton Siva added 18, Chane Behanan pushed in 15, and the Cardinals won their third national title, their first since 1986, and made coach Rick Pitino the only man in Division I NCAA hoops history to win a title at two schools.

The key sequence began with five minutes to play. Trey Burke's block on a Siva fast break at the 5:09 mark -- a clean play, and an incredible one -- was whistled a foul. Siva made both free throws, and then Gorgui Dieng finished a secondary post move on the next possession as the Cardinals pushed their lead to 71-64. Dieng hit another old-school hook shot at 4:13, and then Hancock made another 3-pointer -- his fifth of the game -- to make it 76-66 with 3:05 left to play.

But Michigan didn't go away. A bad Russ Smith shot and a turnover, coupled with some quick Wolverines free throws, brought the lead back down to 78-74 with 1:11 on the clock.

Michigan eventually fouled Hancock with 29.8 seconds left to play. He made two -- the biggest shots of the game were all Hancock's, these included -- and the Cardinals closed out the win in the final seconds.

The finish followed a first half that will last in college hoops lore. Burke, the unanimous national player of the year, picked up his second foul with 11:09 left in the half. He was replaced by Spike Albrecht, a 5-foot-11, largely unrecruited backup. Michigan coach John Beilein had to fight even his own staff members to get them to agree to take on Albrecht. He entered the game averaging 1.8 points in 7.6 minutes per game. In Burke's stead, Albrecht proceeded to have an absolutely legendary half: 17 points, 6-of-7 from the field (including 4-of-4 from 3-point territory) in 16 minutes. He had a mix of confident shooting and never-before-seen drives to the rim, all with the player of the year on the bench. Michigan shot 14-of-28 in the half and, with just 3:33 left, led 33-21.

That was roughly as mind-bending as what came next: four Hancock 3s on four straight possessions, all from the same spot at the right wing. Hancock was the hero of Louisville's national semifinal win over Wichita State on Saturday night, and he was here, too, bringing the staggered Cardinals back from the Albrecht-induced abyss.

Turning point: Albrecht's arrival in the game would be a good place to start, and Hancock's four straight 3s turned the game and saved Louisville from having to fight back from a devastating deficit with Burke itching to get off the bench. But the game was essentially level for most of the second half; it would need to be decided late.

After a back-and-forth sequence in the final minutes, Hancock's free throws truly sealed the game.

Key player: Hancock. Most of Hancock's production came during the first half, but you can't possibly overlook the importance of those four 3s. Without them, Louisville would have been facing a drastic deficit with Burke re-entering the game in the second 20. And Hancock's second-half additions -- a fifth 3 and those free throws -- were the most important shots of the second half.

Key stat: Louisville shot 8-of-16 from 3 and 18-of-23 from the free throw line. The former helped the Cards recover from an early deficit; the latter allowed them to finish the win late.
ATLANTA -- When Louisville made its late second-half run to survive Wichita State, and Michigan held on against Syracuse down the stretch, the two teams set up one of the great between-the-lines national title matchups in recent memory.

Michigan wields the nation's best offense. Lousiville destroys opponents with the nation's best defense. The Cardinals force the second-highest turnover rate in college basketball; Michigan turns the ball over less frequently than any team in the country. You do the math.

But as obviously fascinating as that dynamic is -- and we'll spend time discussing it below -- there is far more to this game than a mere strength-on-strength matchup. If that was all there was to it, Rick Pitino and John Beilein wouldn't be spending so much time watching tape with their staffs and players even as you read this paragraph. In fact, at least one of them is having fun.

"A lot of teams when you watch them, you get nervous a little bit because they do so many things well," Pitino said Sunday. "You have fun watching Michigan play basketball. The way they pass, cut, shoot, it's a John Beilein team. They're fun to watch. As a coach going to play them, I really enjoy watching them on film."

"I started at 5:45 this morning," Beilein said Sunday, when asked whether he was having as much fun breaking down Louisville in advance of the national title game. "I didn't think they were fun, because they give you so many looks. With a one-day prep, it's almost impossible to get ready for all of those things."

If Beilein can't cover all the bases, we can't either. But we can try to hit the major points. Informed by last week's in-depth, coach-assisted scouts, let's break down the things each team will need to execute on both sides of the ball in Monday's national title finale.


Michigan's key: Stop dribble penetration. Wichita State couldn't finish the job Saturday night, thanks to a late Luke Hancock-led Louisville run, some sudden turnovers and a couple of questionable late calls (one a double-foul on Ron Baker and Stephan Van Treese, the other a way-too-quick held ball that robbed Wichita State of at least one final possession). So I'm sure it will be no consolation to the Shockers to know that they made at least one incredibly impressive strategic contribution to this Final Four. No Cardinals opponent since February had really figured it out, and it's something you can bet Beilein will be poring over: The Shockers showed everyone how to guard Louisville.

[+] EnlargeWichita St. vs Lousiville
AP Photo/Chris SteppigMichigan will attempt to replicate Wichita State Shockers' strategy of trying to keep Peyton Siva out of the lanes.
Of course, it isn't exactly a revelation that Louisville isn't a great perimeter shooting team. It's right there in their numbers. The Cardinals have shot just 32.9 percent from 3-point range this season, compared to 51.0 percent from inside the arc. The more challenging thing is to figure out how to keep the Cardinals, who spread the floor and run adjusted-angle ball screens with two of the fastest guards in the country (Peyton Siva and Russ Smith), out of the lane in the first place.

Wichita State cracked the code. They played under every screen. They over-sank into the lane, building a defensive stronghold from the inside out. They rebounded well, preventing second chances and tip-returns to the perimeter, where they'd be stuck scrambling to close out in odd-man situations. And they basically begged Louisville to shoot. For most of the game, particularly in the first half, this worked perfectly: Siva and Smith probed and probed and couldn't crack the Shockers' shell, and so the Cardinals were forced to settle for one bad shot after another.

On Saturday night, Pitino said Wichita State was the best lane-defending team they'd played all season, which would seem to suggest he doesn't think Michigan can replicate Gregg Marshall's strategy. But what if they can?

Louisville's key: Get into the lane; the earlier the better. The first half of this directive is explained above. The second half is a bit less obvious, but probably just as important. The Cardinals might want to attack in transition.

For one thing, that's where Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals said he thought Michigan was most concerned about its defense, even if it was just as likely to benefit their own attempts to get on the break. But it's also generally a good idea for Louisville, because the Cardinals are clearly better when they're flying at you when Smith is hurtling down the court and Eurostepping and making defenders feel vulnerable and alone.

That was one of the surprising things about Louisville's performance Saturday. They didn't really look to push. Had they done so slightly more often, they might have been able to shake Wichita State's stranglehold on the game. And we can't know if Michigan is set on employing Marshall's strategy or if Beilein is cooking up something entirely different; it's not like he's going to tell us this could be the obvious counterpunch.


Louisville's key: Control Mitch McGary. Make Michigan shoot 2s. Before the NCAA tournament, McGary was a promising freshman who had not quite put it all together this season. Now he's verging on a top-10 lottery pick. What changed? McGary was always a good offensive rebounder, and he's transferred that skill seamlessly into greater minutes. But it's what he does with the ball after those rebounds -- his passing on kickouts, his finishes at the rim -- that has added a whole new dimension to Michigan's attack.

Louisville can't have that. If Michigan avoids breakneck speed and leaves it up to Trey Burke to break the Cardinals' matchup zone in the half court, then things get really simple: Louisville has to run shooters off the 3-point line and clear the defensive glass.

[+] EnlargeMitch McGary
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesLouisville will have to limit Mitch McGary by forcing shots inside the arc and grabbing rebounds.
This serves two purposes. For one, though Michigan is an excellent outside shooting team, any team's long 2s are preferable (to the defense) than 3s. The Wolverines are typically happy to take long 2s. Meanwhile, Louisville would probably prefer long jumpers of any sort to McGary bruising his way inside for putbacks and dunks. You can't get a long rebound on four-footers, but you can when a 3 careens errantly off the rim, and Louisville can get Smith out in the open court much more easily that way.

In the end, though, it has often been difficult to untie Louisville's defense from its offense this year. Turnovers turn into points, which turn into leads, faster for Louisville than almost any team in the country. The fact of the matter is, the Cardinals are more than capable of guarding in the half court, too. How they choose to go about the task of guarding the nation's No. 1 offense will be fascinating, to say the least.

Michigan's key: Don't turn it over. Attack. And then go play. This is almost blindingly obvious, but that doesn't make it any less true. Michigan simply cannot turn the ball over against the Cardinals and hope to win Monday night.

The Wolverines' offense is good for a wide variety of reasons, particularly its accuracy from beyond the arc (37.7 percent) and especially inside it (53.3 percent). But you can't get those usually-accurate shots up if you give possessions away. The main reason Michigan is the most efficient offense in the country is the Wolverines turn it over less than any team (just 14.5 percent of their possessions). Despite its status as the second-best turnover-enabling squad in the country (which is a nice way to put it, I think), Louisville can score without forcing turnovers, and Michigan is as die-hard in its devotion to preventing transition defense as anyone. There are some caveats here, in other words. But it's almost impossible to imagine Michigan not taking care of the ball and still finding enough in other areas to compensate. Once the Cardinals put you in that blender, it is very difficult to get out.

Of course, the difference between Louisville and VCU -- the nation's chief practitioners of the turnover arts -- is the Cardinals can guard on possessions even when it doesn't force the opponent to cough up the ball. After the press has exhausted itself, the Cards switch back into their matchup zone defense. It is as tough as any half-court formation Michigan will have seen all season, Syracuse included.

This is why when Villanova coach Billy Lange discussed the Cardinals with me last week, he stressed the importance of attacking Louisville after you break the press. You'd rather face one defense than two on the same possession, and if you can inbound the ball running, and get across half court with a 5-on-4 or 4-on-3 advantage, you have to attack and try to get an easy shot.

That is especially the case for Michigan, which is perfectly suited to get good looks in the fast and secondary break. Burke is the best decision-maker in the country. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas are deadly spot-up shooters. Glenn Robinson III and McGary are constantly rim-running, ready to finish from any which angle. If this gets into an up-and-down game and Michigan routinely breaks the press, look out.

And if the game doesn't get into breakneck speed? If the Wolverines are stuck grinding it out in the half court? Fine. Then it's time to just go -- to play conceptually, as Lange termed Villanova's anti-Louisville-zone philosophy last week.

Not for nothing, Beilein agrees.

"What you're hoping is that you've been getting ready for that since October 15th," Beilein said. "You don't know whether you are, but just you got to dribble it strong, you got to pivot well, pass well, play with your eyes up. Those are things these guys have been working on all year long."

All the X's and O's scouting in the world -- or less scouting than either coach would prefer, in this case -- doesn't change that simple fact that the end of the day, it's just players making plays.

Enjoy the title game, everyone.
Peyton SivaStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesHow Louisville point guard Peyton Siva performs will go a long way in deciding the outcome of Monday's national championship game.
ATLANTA -- Point guard Peyton Siva has been at Louisville for only four seasons -- but he knows that for some, it probably feels like seven or eight. That's what happens when you're on national TV every week, manning the backcourt for one of the top college basketball programs in the country.

And that's what makes Monday so special.

This is it. Win or lose, outstanding outing or average output, the 9:23 p.m. ET tipoff against Michigan will mark the finale of a roller-coaster career that has seen the 5-foot-11 ball handler pay his reserve dues as a freshman, then start every game he has played in since, winning 109 contests, dishing out 772 assists and competing in two Final Fours.

Win or lose, Siva's final game will come on college basketball's biggest stage, where he'll try to lead Louisville to its third national title. Could you write a better potential ending for a player who has been this team's emotional leader for so long?

"You start dreaming about winning a national championship when you're little," Siva said Sunday. "You watch ‘One Shining Moment' and all those great college teams win. And it really hit me last night, ‘We're going to be playing in a national championship [game].'

"Every year I've been here, you look back and say, ‘Ah, we could have won it this year. Ah, we could have won it this year.' Last year, we came so close, we made it to the Final Four. And this year, we actually have a chance. God blessed us with an opportunity that very few people get a chance at.”

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsWith his calm demeanor, Peyton Siva has led the Cardinals all the way to the title game.
The Cardinals have a chance because Siva has led them to it. He's not Louisville's most dynamic personality (that would be junior backcourt mate Russ Smith), most talented player (center Gorgui Dieng is a potential first-round draft pick) or most famous face (that, now, would be sophomore Kevin Ware, who became instantly recognizable after he broke his leg in horrendous fashion last weekend).

"But Peyton is the glue for all of us," freshman forward Montrezl Harrell said, "the one who puts us all together.”

It shouldn't be surprising, because Siva's personality has always been one of helping, of meshing, of including.

The story of his formative years has been told and retold, but in case you missed it: At age 13, growing up in Seattle's rough Central District, Siva's father, Peyton Sr., had once again disappeared, somewhere, in a haze of alcohol and drug addiction. Siva grabbed the keys to his older brother's car and went looking for him -- and what he found was his dad with a gun, contemplating suicide.

Somehow, Siva talked him out of it. Peyton Sr. got clean, and a decade later, will be cheering his son from the stands in the national title game.

It was an early example of how Siva inspires -- both on and off the court.

"He is just a great leader," said Dieng. "You never see him get too high or too low; he's always calm, and we feed off of that.”

Indeed, point guards have always been key to coach Rick Pitino's high-octane attack. And it has been no different for Siva, responsible for pushing the pace with the ball, while pushing foes out of their comfort zone in the Cardinals' maddening, turnover-inducing press.

He's averaging a team-leading 2.2 steals per game to go along with 9.8 points and 5.7 assists, and Pitino refers to the ball handler as the "coach.”

"Peyton listens to every little thing," Pitino said. "He understands.”

It wasn't always that way. Siva came to Louisville as more of a combo guard and it took him time to learn defense. As a sophomore, it all started to come together when his 69 steals were eighth best in a single season at Louisville.

Then after a rough start to his junior season -- when Pitino had to pull the guard aside and advise him to cut back on off-the-court distractions and hone his concentration -- he was named the most outstanding player of the 2012 Big East tournament after averaging 13.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.8 steals in his four games.

His shooting hasn't been as consistent this season; in five NCAA tournament games, he's made only 36.6 percent of his shots, including going 1-for-12 on 3-pointers. But his experience, his speed, his focus and his ability to focus his team has been and will be key.

"Playing against Russ Smith and Peyton Siva is going to be a challenge for Tim [Hardaway Jr.] and I," Michigan guard Trey Burke said, "a challenge we probably haven't seen all year with their pressure and their capability of penetrating.”

Siva, too, knows the guard matchup will be key, but emphasizes team performance over any individual ones.

It's the mindset you'd expect from a point guard who has been at Louisville for four -- or is it seven or eight? -- years.

"For me it's been a great run, long journey, a lot of ups and downs," Siva said. "I wouldn't trade it for the world. Every day I treat it like it was my last game. Tomorrow, it definitely is. It would be great to out on a win.”

Video: Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell

April, 7, 2013

Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell talks about making the national championship game and the leadership of point guard Peyton Siva.

ATLANTA -- A quick look at Louisville’s 72-68 victory over Wichita State on Saturday in the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

Overview: It shouldn’t be easy to get to the national championship game, right? And it wasn’t for the overall No. 1 seed. The Cardinals overcame not just Wichita State but themselves to advance to the national title game.

Without Kevin Ware, with an unproductive Peyton Siva and unable to penetrate in the lane, Louisville somehow won anyway, which just might be the mark of a champion.

Credit the bench for this victory.

Luke Hancock, with help from Stephan Van Treese and Tim Henderson, won this game for the Cardinals. The trio hit big shots, pulled down rebounds and helped spell Louisville's struggling starters.

Turning point: Unable to force Wichita State into any mistakes, the Cardinals finally caught the Shockers in the backcourt with less than seven minutes to play, forcing their first turnover in nearly 20 minutes of play. It led to a Hancock 3-pointer from the wing to turn what was once a 12-point Wichita State lead into a one-point Cardinals edge. Rattled, the ninth-seeded Shockers (30-9) continued to cough it up as Louisville kept up the pressure.

Key player: Hancock. Without Ware, Hancock was pressed into action in the backcourt and handled it like he was built to play there. He managed to get into the lane, a feat neither Siva nor Russ Smith succeeded at much, but didn’t give up on his long-distance game. Hancock finished with 20 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and a crucial forced jump ball in the final seconds to seal the win.

Key stat: Wichita State went from 13:04 of the first half to the 6:42 mark of the second half without a turnover, but then the wheels spun off in a hurry. The Shockers finished with 10, seven in those final 6:42, and that little bit is all the Cardinals needed.

Next: Louisville (34-5) advances to the national championship game for the first time since 1986, where it will face Michigan.
"Digging In" is our in-depth look at what makes each of the Final Four teams tick, with an assist from the coaches who scout and prep for these teams all season. Our final scout: Louisville.

How good is Louisville? Good enough to make opposing coaches downright conceptual.

That's not even my word. That's how Villanova assistant coach Billy Lange, who scouted the Cardinals for the Nova staff this season, described Thursday what he thought was the best approach to playing the Cardinals. We were talking about one specific aspect of Louisville's style -- in this case its amorphous matchup-zone defense -- and Lange was explaining that the Cardinals are so good on that end of the floor, and so able to switch defenses on a whim, that you can't really devise a game plan with sets and quick-hitters the way you can most normal defenses. You have to settle for giving your players broad concepts -- protect the ball, make the extra pass, penetrate and kick -- and hope they can get it from Point A to Point B without being micromanaged.

That was just the defense, but the more we talked, the more I thought this might be the underappreciated key to Louisville's tidal burst through the final two months of its season: It reduces opponents to guesswork. You can't really scheme against the Cardinals the way you can other teams, because they aren't like any other team.

Louisville's high ball screens aren't just effective; the Cardinals can attack at any angle, sometimes from one second to the next. You can play brilliant defense on Russ Smith and force him to shoot some freak-show 18-foot floater and, because it is Russ Smith, it is just as likely to go in. Its press and matchup zone defenses aren't just great, they're unpredictable, and the best way to attack them -- by beating Louisville across half court and using odd-man advantages to get easy shots in the press break -- is also the best way to play into coach Rick Pitino's hands.

(The more we talked, the more I was reminded of the scene in "The Dark Knight" when that accountant tries to blackmail Batman [awesome idea, by the way; HE'S BATMAN GUY], and I practically saw Pitino smile the Morgan Freeman smile: "Your opponent is a lightning-quick defensive behemoth that does its best scoring work off turnovers … and your plan is to play up-tempo against us? Good luck!")

"I really don't think you can overprepare," Lange said. "I think you have to get your guys in a mindset where you tell them, 'We're going to play together off of concepts and instincts.'

"If you get robotic against them, they're going to eat you alive," Lange said. "They're going to kick your [butt]. I mean they'll just straight-up kick your [butt]."

So: How does a coach prepare for the unprepare-able? While you decide whether or not that's actually a word (it's not), let's dig in.

When Louisville has the ball

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
AP Photo/Michael ConroyLimiting the space Peyton Siva (3) gets coming off a high ball screen can slow Louisville's offense.
1. Guard the high ball screen well -- or as well as possible. Louisville's best and most-used asset on the offensive end is its guards, Peyton Siva and Smith, and its go-to offensive play is the spread-floor high ball screen. Everyone moves to the perimeter, Gorgui Dieng comes up top, and Smith and Siva read the angles and attack the defense relentlessly. There are all the usual ball-screen decision-tree issues to worry about here -- do we hedge, do we play under, how much help do we give away from the ball -- but the biggest challenge, Lange said, is how unpredictable the angles become. "They get you really spread, what they do a great job of is Dieng will run out and adjust the angle of the screen at the last second," Lange said. "It's not predictable; you have a hard time deciding which way the ball is going to go." The key, Lange said, is for a team to be ready to react either way, and then make sure neither Smith or Siva sees daylight when he comes off that screen. "When they come off that angle, Siva can not see space, because if he feels that way he's much more aggressive coming off," he said. "Same with Smith."

The spread pick-and-roll stuff isn't actually at its best when the ball handler ends up taking a shot -- Louisville scored only 310 points when the pick-and-roll ball handler ended the 433 possessions in Synergy's database from this season -- but what it does do is create angles and matchup problems, and Siva especially loves to get a head full of steam and dump off to Chane Behanan for easy finishes on the baseline.

2. Don't let Russ get you down. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this Louisville team is the distance Smith has traveled from last season. In March 2012, he was a lovable kook -- an oblivious goofball just as likely to hit a big shot as he was to make an inexplicable turnover. This season, Smith has morphed into a bona fide star and thoroughly underrated player-of-the-year candidate whose offensive attack has managed to become more lethal and consistent without losing any of that jittery je ne sais quoi that made it so hard to defend in the first place. It's a microcosm of Louisville's season: How do you prepare to guard a guy for whom everyone else's bad shot is merely Russ being Russ?

"There are two things you can try to do," Lange said. "The first is work really really hard to not let him catch the ball. The second is, when he does catch the ball, turn him into a contested 3-point jump-shooter. And if he makes his first couple of 3s, you don't panic and press up on him, because I still think he can shoot them out of games if he falls in love with the 3-point shot."

This is much easier said than done, of course, because Smith is so quick to get past defenders and so herky-jerky when he does. Plus he's lethal on the fast break -- he scored 1.171 points per trip on transition plays this season, which were his most frequent (28.5 percent) play type -- and can be perfectly well-defended and still make the kind of crazy Euro-step bank shots that had Duke defenders hanging their heads Sunday evening.

"When he gets a turnover and he's running the court in transition, you're not stopping that," Lange said.

3. Take care of the ball. This doesn't file neatly under "when Louisville has the ball," but it is impossible to untie the Cardinals' offensive output from their defense, which has forced more turnovers (71) in the 2013 NCAA tournament tournament than any other team. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Louisville has scored 72 transition points in its first four games, the second-most in the field. Of those 72 transition points, Louisville has scored 37 (51.4 percent) off turnovers in the tournament, more than any other team in the field. So: If you want to stop Louisville's offense from scoring, at least get a shot to the rim. It's no guarantee, but it's certainly better than the alternative.

Plus, saying "take care of the ball" against Louisville's defense in the below section would have been way too obvious. I mean, duh.

4. Oh, and block out. Just a quick bonus point of emphasis here: The Cardinals rebound their misses at a top-20 rate this season, as Dieng and Behanan (and even Montrezl Harrell) are absolute beasts over the top on the offensive glass. The good news for Wichita State is that the Shockers are arguably the best rebounding team left in the tournament, so this isn't a real matchup woe. But it is worth noting.

Trademark set: Spread-court, adjusted-angle ball screen. "He's a great offensive coach, and they run plenty of other stuff," Lange said of Pitino and the Cardinals. "They run guys off back screens with shooters, they run some double-screen stuff almost la Allen Iverson. But that screen action is just really tough to defend, and when Dieng is popping and making those 15-footers, it's almost impossible."

When Louisville is on defense

1. Inbound the ball well against the press. This seems pretty basic, right? Louisville scores, so you take the ball out of the rim and throw it in to a guard, and then you try to bring it up the floor. Great. Easy. Except, you know, the exact opposite of that.

When Louisville is pressing, as it has on 49.8 percent of its defensive possessions in the tournament, how you inbound the ball might be the most important aspect of surviving pressure defense that swarms and smothers even the best ball handlers in the backcourt. This is not the kind of thing I would have thought of, which is probably (among myriad other reasons) why I don't get paid to coach basketball, but you could tell Lange had thought about it -- a lot.

"How are you inbounding the ball?" Lange said. "Are you inbounding it with your four or your five, or with a guard? Whatever you do, you can't do the same thing over and over, because they get accustomed to what you're doing and they start closing it down.

"The most important thing, however you decide to do it, is that you're catching it on the move," he said. "If you catch it with your back to half court and your chest to the baseline, you're already in trouble. You have to catch moving forward so you can get them chasing you right away."

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportRick Pitino can change his squad's defensive approach seemingly from possession to possession.
2. If you beat the pressure, attack. Congratulations! You've managed to make it past half court against Louisville's pressure defense! It's OK to take a brief moment to enjoy your accomplishment. Maybe write a self-congratulatory Facebook post. And then make an utterly crucial decision: Do you pull the ball back out and work your offense in the half court? Or do you attack?

The former option is the most conventional route. As I wrote above, when you're playing a team that likes to force turnovers and scoop long rebounds and score in transition, it would follow that your best bet is to slow the game down, work for a good shot in the half court, and try to keep the turnovers to an absolute minimum.

But the most conventional route is not always the best, particularly when you're a 10-point underdog (as Wichita State is) and you have a guard (Malcolm Armstead in particular) who is comfortable getting at the rim in 5–on-4s and 4-on-3s. And honestly, it might be the best strategy for everybody. Lange explains:

"Here's the thing: If you break the press and pull it back out, you are forcing yourself to play against two very good defenses," he said. "First you're playing against the press, and then you're playing against the matchup zone. Whereas if you can get them scrambling and chasing out of the press trap, and you have advantages, I think you've got to try to attack because you have a better chance to get a really good shot that you might not be able to get in the half court."

The numbers back this up: On the 16.8 percent of its defensive possessions when Louisville has allowed opponents to play in transition, those opponents are scoring 0.913 points per trip. In the half court, that number plummets to 0.706. It may seem anathema to try to get into a jumbled back-and-forth game with a team with Russ Smith and Peyton Siva in the backcourt, but it's probably your best shot.

3. Play conceptually in the half court. Pitino, being Pitino, won't just let you race across half court and get layups more than a few times before he decides to switch things up; whether you like it or not (I'm guessing not), you are going to have to play against Louisville's devastating matchup zone. Bummer, huh?

If you watch Louisville often, you can't help but notice how diverse its defensive approach can be. The Cardinals move and shift their zone from side to side to overplay a team's best scorer; they run good shooters off the 3-point arc and rely on Dieng's shot-blocking on the back line to force uncomfortable midrange shots; they spring any number of traps and sieges, which Pitino dials up from the sideline almost on command. (By the way: Watching Pitino coach this defense is one of the true joys in college hoops right now; it frequently looks as though he is telekinetically willing players into possession-specific positions, accompanied by a fittingly wide-eyed glare.) Point is, they're not good the way Syracuse is good -- where you know what you're facing and can scheme for it and just have to hope your shots go down. Louisville's half-court defense is good in a profoundly more frustrating way, because it can't be planned for.

"You will never see consistency from possession to possession in what they do," Lange said. "So if you go into it like, 'I watched them play against Marquette and they did this, so we're going to run a certain set against them' -- that's crazy. Don't do that.

"Have a couple of things your players can get into real quickly, run your set, and then if you don't have it, you've got to play conceptually," Lange said. "I don't think you can go into it robotic and programmed, like you're going to run your stuff. Because it just doesn't work."

Defensive style: Trapping press, token press, half-court matchup zone.

Takeaway: I have a pet theory -- that the best college basketball coaches set the terms of the game most advantageous to their teams, and then funnel all of their year-long recruiting, development and strategy into making sure they're setting the agenda each and every time they take the floor.

It is not easy to do this without, you know, possessing the basketball. But I don't think there's a better way to describe what Louisville (and Syracuse, for that matter) does to opposing offenses. They force you to play them, and never the other way around.

And then there is the other issue: Even if you handle all of the pressure and take care of the ball and get good shots and hang with Louisville for 20, 25, 30, 35 minutes … all it takes is one or two possessions -- a long rebound here, a turnover in the backcourt there -- for them to speed you up, get you rattled, and mercilessly bury you.

"Three points goes to nine for them faster than any team in the country," Lange said. "If they were a more consistent 3-point shooting team, they would have obliterated college basketball this year. Just obliterated it. They're on another level the way they're playing right now.

"You can't play the clock against them, you can't get cute. You just have to play it all the way to the end, stay focused, and hope you have a chance late."

And this is why Louisville is the overwhelming favorite to win the 2013 national title: After all is said and done, the best strategy against the Cardinals is "do your best and hope things go well."

There is no more ringing endorsement than that.
Four for Four is our quick look at a few things you need to know right here and now about the 2013 Final Four. We did it last April too, but I can’t remember why the introduction was so long.

"Guards win in the tournament."

There are a lot of cliches in sports, and pretty much all of them drive me crazy -- grit, toughness, any and all war-related analogies, we're taking it one day at a time, we move on to the next play, etc. -- mostly because they often make it maddeningly difficult to get to the actual thing itself. How are you taking it one day at a time? What kind of discipline does that entail? How can you move on to the next play when failure is so fresh in your mind? What about high-level athletes fosters that mindset?

But if we're going to use a cliche, it better at least be true, rather than a nonsense series of words designed to prevent anyone from having to actually say anything. Many seemingly pedestrian cliches began as simple, obvious truths.

Here's one: Good guards win in the NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeTrey Burke
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesMichigan's Trey Burke is proof that elite guard play can be a huge advantage in the NCAA tournament.
It is easy to bristle at this, because it feels like the basketball equivalent of some of baseball's silliest arguments. Actually, no, I don't want that gritty guy who bunts for a living and plays chill music in the clubhouse; just give me the best players, please.

Thing is? The best players in this year's Final Four most frequently happen to be guards.

  • Trey Burke isn't just the best player of the tournament, or the best guard, he is the national player of the year. He's just … complete. He scores efficiently when he needs to, he drives and kicks to one of the Wolverines' number of shooters, he handles, he hits step-back jumpers (not all of them as crazy as Kansas, but still). Mitch McGary has made Michigan a legitimately challenging physical proposition on the front line, but Burke has had this offense humming pretty much all season.

  • Russ Smith and Peyton Siva lead the way for Louisville, not only by attacking and scoring and starting every play on the offensive end, but by being some of the handsiest and most unrelenting steals-creators in all of college basketball. When those two create turnovers, particularly in the backcourt, Louisville's offensive efficiency soars.

  • Then there's Syracuse, which features one of the nation's best assist men in guard Michael Carter-Williams -- whose 6-6 frame has always screamed "shooting guard" but whose innate passing ability has made him one of the more unguardable forces in the tournament -- paired alongside savvy vet Brandon Triche. Together, their size at the top of the 2-3 is an absolute nightmare for opposing coaches and players.

Of course, none of these players got to the Final Four by sheer individual skill. Louisville might not get here without Gorgui Dieng. Michigan certainly doesn't without McGary. Syracuse's back line is nearly as imposing as its front, with C.J. Fair really blossoming into a dangerous all-around player. Wichita State's best players -- the aforementioned Early and Carl Hall -- are both 6-8.

But as we saw in Michigan's win against Kansas, it really does help to have a guard who (a) knows what he's doing, and (b) knows he knows what he's doing. Having Burke on their team is an incredible advantage for the Wolverines in a big game, because he can handle it all the time, facilitate offense, get scoring when he needs to. Smith and Siva have some of that too, but they're great for entirely different reasons -- their unique ability to speed the whole thing up, rather than slow it down or make it more manageable. Certainly, none of the four teams at the Final Four would be here without good guard play, which is also obvious. But the extent to which each team relies on that position is a clear theme -- and, if we're willing to admit it, some proof of a hoary old cliche.

INDIANAPOLIS -- A quick look at Louisville’s 85-63 win over Duke in the Midwest Regional final.

Overview: The word adversity gets tossed around so much that it’s almost lost its meaning. A foul is adversity, a bad call.

Louisville had the real thing. The top seed in the NCAA tournament, squaring off against what many consider to be the other best team in this tournament, had to overcome one of the most gut-wrenching moments in sports to return to the Final Four.

A high-energy, high-intensity game was knocked off its rails with 6:33 left in the first half when Cards backup guard Kevin Ware broke his lower right leg.

Ware, who was racing to try to block a Tyler Thornton 3-pointer, landed wrong and crumbled to the ground in front of his own bench. His teammates were overcome with emotion. Russ Smith was visibly crying, while Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan both fell to the floor, sobbing on their hands and knees.

The players eventually huddled near the free throw line but were summoned to the bench by coach Rick Pitino, who yelled, "Hey, [Kevin] wants to talk to you." The players raced over and gathered over the stretcher. Ware eventually was taken off the court on the stretcher while everybody in the building stood and applauded.

Just as play was about to resume, official Scott Thornley turned to hand the ball to Smith to inbound it and asked, "Are you OK? Ready to go?"

The Cardinals were. Showing a mental toughness that has defined this team, Louisville rolled on a 17-2 run early in the second half to break open the tight game and earn its way back to the Final Four.

Turning point: With the game tied at 42, the Cardinals put together what has become their trademark run -- a commanding 17-2 steamrolling that caught the Blue Devils flat footed. Peyton Siva scored six of those 17, Gorgui Dieng eight.

Key player: Siva. Smith had more points but Siva won this game for the Cardinals. His grit and determination steered Louisville through the emotional roller coaster of Ware’s injury. He scored 16 points, dished out four assists and played his typical swarming defense. He helped hold Seth Curry to just 12 points.

Key stat: 40-28. That’s the points in the paint edge for the Cardinals, who managed just one 3-pointer but still managed to thump Duke. The Blue Devils had to keep the Louisville guards out of the paint and simply could not.

Next: It’s back to the Final Four for the Cardinals, but this time Louisville goes to Atlanta as the favorite, not the underdog. They’ll face the underdog Wichita State in the national semifinals on Saturday.
This week’s slate of NCAA tournament games should feature a variety of exciting matchups. There’s no question that 16 quality teams are still alive.

But that will change soon.

And the following matchups could play crucial roles in the final outcomes.

Here are five individual Sweet 16 matchups that I’m excited about:

Mitch McGary (Michigan) versus Jeff Withey (Kansas), Friday, Dallas: Michigan’s win against VCU helped change my perspective on McGary. He just had a different rhythm and vibe in that game. In one outing -- the most crucial matchup of his career and his team’s season -- McGary (21 points, 10-for-11 from the field, 14 rebounds) had matured from a freshman to a man. He was active and strong and fluid and determined. But he’s about to run into a 7-foot problem.

Withey is playing like a man possessed right now. He’s clearly hungry for a ring. In two Kansas wins in the NCAA tournament, he’s averaged 16.5 PPG, 11.0 RPG and 6.0 BPG. McGary has been challenged by some talented defenders in the Big Ten. But Withey is a different test. He’s not only talented, he’s experienced. He battled Anthony Davis in the national title game last season. So he’s not afraid of anyone. This pairing could ignite a war in the paint.

Peyton Siva/Russ Smith (Louisville) versus Johnathan Loyd/Dominic Artis/Damyean Dotson (Oregon), Friday, Indianapolis: So this goes against the “individual” premise of this piece. But I couldn’t pick just one player. And with Rick Pitino’s wacky zone looks and Dana Altman’s guard rotation, you just never know who will be on the floor at the same time. But I picked these matchups based on one element: I’m a speed junkie. This might be the fastest guard setup in NCAA tournament history. They should play this game on turf.

Siva and Smith lead an attack that’s ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency and forces turnovers on 28 percent of its opponents’ possessions (second in the country), both according to Ken Pomeroy. That could be a problem for an Oregon squad that led the Pac-12 with 14.2 turnovers per game. Artis, Dotson and Loyd love to go (the Ducks are 48th in adjusted tempo, per Pomeroy). So this could be the fastest game in the Big Dance. But it’s also a platform for chaos. Oregon’s speed versus Russdiculous? Don’t blink.

Victor Oladipo (Indiana) versus Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse), Thursday, Washington, D.C.: There’s no guarantee the game will start this way. But at some point, things could turn and Tom Crean might be forced to put the country’s top overall defender on one of the country’s most dynamic point guards. Sometimes, the most troubling defender for MCW is MCW (3.5 turnovers per game). But when the 6-foot-6 maestro is efficient, it’s easy to see the pro qualities that have positioned him as a potential lottery pick (11.8 PPG, 7.6 APG, 2.7 SPG).

David Stern probably will call Oladipo’s name in this summer’s draft, too. The 6-5 All-American is active on both ends of the floor, and his ability to defend players of all sizes has been an asset for a Hoosiers team that earned the Big Ten’s regular-season title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney. Oladipo (2.1 SPG) will be crucial for Indiana’s offense, too. He’s shooting 43.3 percent from beyond the arc. Oladipo-MCW, if we see it play out, could be the game’s most critical matchup.

Aaron Craft (Ohio State) versus Mark Lyons (Arizona), Thursday, Los Angeles: Lyons has carried the Wildcats to the Sweet 16. The West Region did Arizona a few favors to ease its path. Harvard’s dismissal of New Mexico certainly helped. But Lyons has been phenomenal. He scored 50 points, shot 20-for-32 from the field and connected on six of his 13 3-point attempts in two wins against Belmont and Harvard. When Sean Miller lured Lyons to Tucson, he needed a leader. He needed a veteran who could help him mold his talented young recruiting class. And Lyons has played that role for the program. Plus, he’s elevated his game at a pivotal time.

But Craft is a dream-killer. He proved as much with his poise in the final minutes of Ohio State’s win against Iowa State last weekend. Craft wasn’t perfect. But with the game on the line, he didn’t panic. That game winner exemplified the trust his teammates have in him, too. Point guards don’t like him, though. He’s recorded eight steals in two NCAA tournament games. Cyclones point guard Korie Lucious committed five turnovers against his pressure. Craft is coming after Lyons this week.

Adreian Payne (Michigan State) versus Ryan Kelly (Duke), Friday, Indianapolis: Last year, Payne told me he wanted to play point guard for Tom Izzo in 2012-13. Izzo laughed when I mentioned the idea. He’s certainly no PG, but Payne has played like an extremely athletic stretch-4 in recent weeks. He’s not your average big man. He was off in Michigan State’s first two tournament games (0-for-4), but he’s shooting 40.5 percent from the 3-point line. And at the rim, he’s a human pogo stick (five blocks against Memphis).

Kelly, however, is the definition of a stretch-4. He’s the toughest matchup for the majority of Duke’s opponents. He’s 6-11 and he’s shooting 45.9 percent from the 3-point line. And he’s improved as a defender. He also has a very underrated Kevin McHale-like post game. This is a matchup between two guys who get buckets in a multitude of ways. They’ll be chasing each other all day. Get your popcorn ready for this one.