Indianapolis — Rick Pitino thinks Michigan is really, really great. John Beilein thinks Louisville is really, really great. Some of it is hyperbole, like when Pitino compared the Wolverines to the Golden State Warriors, but much of it is mutual respect.
While Sunday’s clash for a spot in the Sweet 16 won’t match the hype of their 2013 national championship meeting, there are fascinating parallels. Louisville again is the higher-seeded stalwart built on defense. Michigan again is the rising upstart that shoots through defenses.
For the Wolverines, it’s not a revenge game, and not really a rematch either. No players on the Michigan team that lost 82-76 in the championship game are around. Only one Louisville player — reserve Mangok Mathiang — is still on the roster. The players aren’t the same but the styles sure are, and in some ways, so are the stakes. The winner of this game will stir all sorts of big-time possibilities.
Beilein said he’d show clips of the title-game thriller to his team, but for tactical adjustments, not emotional revisiting.
“Yeah, it won’t be inspirational,” Beilein said Saturday. “It’ll be, here’s what their zone looks like, here’s how they guard us in man, here’s how we were able to beat or not beat their press. It hurts to watch it, actually. … When you realize you may not get there again in your life, you think, is there anything I could’ve done to be better in that game? So yeah, it bothers me. I am not going to go through my life in torment because of it, but I do wish we had that national championship for the University of Michigan.”
(He also wishes the refs had recognized Trey Burke’s clean block of Peyton Siva’s layup with five minutes left, instead of calling a critical foul. Beilein lamented the controversial play briefly Saturday and moved on.)
Lessons from the past
Beilein and these Wolverines are driven for all sorts of reasons, mainly for appreciating opportunities they didn’t think they’d get. And when they see clips of the 2013 title game, they’ll see precisely how the Cardinals won, and how they’ll attempt to win again.
It’s with changing, aggressive defenses, with long arms swatting and big bodies rebounding. Michigan shoots the 3 as prolifically as any team in the Tournament. Louisville defends the 3 as proficiently as anyone.
Derrick Walton Jr. isn’t Burke (well, not yet). Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell isn’t Siva. But with these coaches, it doesn’t take familiar names to recognize the teams. Michigan’s offense is still a mix of deep shooting and positional flexibility, and Louisville’s defense is still a mix of, well, pretty much everything.
“They’re a two seed that could very well be a No. 1 seed,” Beilein said. “Obviously, they got a Hall-of-Fame coach, great guards and big guys all over the glass, which is not a strength of ours. Their offensive rebounding is going to be incredible to stop.”
Bluntly, it’s going to be impossible to stop. Michigan was outrebounded by Oklahoma State 40-21 and needed every one of its 16 3-pointers to win 92-91. That shooting performance is what set Pitino to waxing wildly about Wolverines and Warriors and other concerns.
“That’s the genius about John Beilien,” Pitino said. “With one-day prep, this is about as difficult a task as I’ve faced since I’ve been a coach. There’s nobody similar — and we had the No. 1 schedule in the nation — that plays like Michigan. If you put them on the line, they’re going to make their free throws. If you give them open looks, they’re going to make their 3s. If you overplay them, they’re going to go back door. They’re truly unique.”
So is Louisville. In fact, as different as they are in style and personality, Pitino, 64, and Beilein, 64, have a lot in common. They’ve coached at multiple programs at different levels over many years, and have evolved and endured without dramatically changing, if that’s possible.
Pitino was one of the first coaches to embrace the 3-point shot when it was instituted in 1986-87, and he led Providence to the Final Four. Beilein has always embraced the 3 but allows for flexibility, with much depending on Walton’s on-court direction.
Pitino is 4-1 against Beilein, including Beilein’s stint at West Virginia. It’s a small sample size but the two have waged some classics, from the 2013 title game to a 2005 matchup in the Elite Eight. Louisville rallied from a 20-point deficit to beat Beilein’s Mountaineers 93-85 in overtime.
So pardon Beilein if he’s not buying the Golden State flattery.
“It’s a huge exaggeration,” Beilein said with a smile. “This is the part before they kick your butt. They try to butter you up a little bit. … He’s the hardest coach I’ve ever had to prepare for. How about that for a touche?”
With two teams that use multi-faceted schemes, preparation sometimes is rendered moot. Surely you remember Michigan’s shooting star in 2013 — Spike Albrecht — and Louisville’s shooting star — Luke Hancock.
This time, the Wolverines are a seven seed and the Cardinals are a two. In the title game, Michigan was a four and Louisville was a one. The Wolverines shot well that night but lost the rebounding and turnover battles, and the Cardinals grabbed nine steals.
To close that gap, the Wolverines will have to take precious care of the ball, something they usually do very well. A major key: Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson will have to play big and active, and at least stem the Cardinals’ rebounding onslaught.
“That’s basically their offense, right?” Wagner said. “They don’t try to trick you offensively, they play straight-up basketball, one pick and roll, another action, then they crash the glass. Very talented team.”
The Wolverine have advantages elsewhere, and are better shooters in all three areas — field goals, 3-pointers, free throws. Notably, Louisville’s top three scorers — Mitchell, Quentin Snider, Deng Adel — all shoot 41 percent or less from the field.
Numbers like that help you understand how Louisville is only 6-4 in its last 10 games, while Michigan has won 11 of 13. My guess is, the Wolverines prevail in a close one. My stronger guess is, both sides will sweat to the end, again.
No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 2 Louisville
When: Sunday, 12:10 p.m.
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Records: Michigan 25-11, Louisville 25-8
At stake: Spot in Midwest Region semifinals against Oregon-Rhode Island winner