ATLANTA — At the end of February, Michigan looked nowhere near ready for March.
The Wolverines suffered one of the most stunning defeats of the Big Ten, at Penn State. They finished fifth in the conference and lost to Wisconsin to fail to reach the Big Ten tournament semifinals.
And then the NCAA Tournament began.
While Michigan is rated by kenpom.com as owning the nation’s best offense, its defense was not clicking. Until lately.
“A lot of people don’t give us credit for guarding,” point guard Trey Burke said. “It came down to defensive stops. I think this team definitely gets it.”
The Wolverines are back in the NCAA championship game for the first time since 1993, an accomplishment that was later vacated. They are looking for their first title since 1989.
To raise that banner at the Crisler Center on their Ann Arbor campus, the Wolverines must face top-seeded Louisville and its oppressive pressing defense tonight at the Georgia Dome.
The path has been even longer for Louisville, which has not won a championship since 1986.
Though this game is touted as Michigan’s No. 1 offense against Louisville’s top-ranked defense, both teams can excel on both ends the court.
Both can score, averaging in the mid-70s. Both — now — can play defense. Burke said he expects the game to reach the 80-point range.
“It’s definitely fun,” he said of the teams’ up-tempo styles. “It brings out the best from both teams.”
Michigan players said tournament wins against pressing teams VCU and Florida will help their preparation for Louisville.
“It definitely gives us confidence,” Burke said. “But we know this is a championship game. We’re going to have to make adjustments. It’s our job to take care of the ball and try to attack them as much as possible and limit the turnovers.”
Louisville looked unbeatable until it struggled in its Final Four victory against Wichita State. The Cardinals dropped three straight from Jan. 19-26 but have lost only once since and are riding a 15-game winning streak.
“We stuck together like a fist,” coach Rick Pitino said. “We never deviated. All I told them when we got to be No. 1 is we’re in the Big East. You all know we’re going to have some bumps.”
It has been smooth since, and Pitino now has a shot at becoming the first coach to win championships at two schools, adding to his 1996 title at Kentucky.
Neither team’s stars made the marquee in Saturday’s semifinal victories.
Burke made only 1 of 8 shots and Tim Hardaway Jr. made only 4 of 16. But reserve freshmen Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert each made two three-pointers, while burgeoning freshman forward Mitch McGary continued his tournament roll with 10 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two blocks.
For Louisville, Peyton Siva made only 1 of 9 shots from the field, and center Gorgui Dieng was 0 of 1 and fell into foul trouble. Russ Smith missed 7 of 12 free throws.
The Cardinals instead found their spark in sixth man Luke Hancock, who scored 20 points, and walk-on Tim Henderson’s two three-pointers.
“You never know who is going to step up,” Pitino said.