ATLANTA--Call it the Battle of the Benches.
Both top-seeded Louisville (34-5) and No. 4 Michigan (31-7) had to be rescued by their substitutes in Final Four semifinal victories Saturday night, and the same could be the case when the last two teams standing collide for the national championship Monday night at 9:23 in the Georgia Dome.
When his starters weren't getting the job done -- those not named Russ Smith produced zero field goals and a mere two points in the first half -- UofL coach Rick Pitino called on forward Luke Hancock and walk-on guard Tim Henderson, both juniors.
Hancock responded with a career-high 20 points and Henderson hit two clutch 3-pointers as the Cardinals rallied to edge No. 9 Wichita State 72-68. Louisville also got significant contributions from Stephen Van Treese and Montrezl Harrell, leading Pitino to say that, "Our bench won the game for us with an unbelievable display."
UofL's bench outscored Wichita State's reserves 34-9, and Pitino knows he can count on his subs again Monday, as he has all season, if the starters struggle again.
So can Michigan. The Wolverines got 21 points from their bench in their 61-56 win over No. 4 Syracuse, with the biggest sparks being provided by freshmen guards Caris LeVert (8 points) and Spike Albrecht (6), each of whom hit a pair of treys.
"Our bench is incredible," Michigan coach John Beilein says. "I always talk about the outliers that are out there. You just never know who it's going to be. That's been a key to our season, so, so many times, somebody else stepped up when somebody is in foul trouble or whatever."
This stacks up as something of a dream matchup -- the nation's most efficient offense against the best defense.
According to 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. Michigan is the nation's No. 1-ranked offense, scoring 1.22 points per trip.
Michigan has multiple weapons, with four players averaging in double figures, led by National Player of the Year Trey Burke, its sohomore point guard. Burke is averaging 13.8 ppg, and in the NCAA Tournament he is averaging seven assists and has a 2.33 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Both Burke and guard Tim Hardaway Jr. are dangerous from long range -- very long range. Officials won't need to review their 3-pointers to see if they had a toe on the arc, but they may have to check for an over-and-back violation. Michigan has made nearly 39 percent (41-106) of its 3-pointers in the tournament and has also improved significantly on defense, limiting opponents to 24.0 percent on threes and 61.8 ppg compared to its 75.2.
Freshman forward Mitch McGary is averaging a double-double in the NCAAs with 16.0 pg and 11.6 rpg after getting 10 points, 12 rebounds and six assists against Syracuse."Burke is awesome," UofL guard Russ Smith says. "Burke and Hardaway can really shoot and then you've got McGary down low, so they're going to pose a lot of problems for us."
"Everybody talks about Trey Burke, but McGary has really gotten better to the point where he's one of the premier guys in the country right now," Pitino says. "He's always been hard-nosed and tough and now he's a great runner, very active, has improved his shooting."
There's no question that Louisville's defense will have to be better against Michigan than is was for most of the night against WSU, which went 26 minutes without committing a turnover before coughing up the ball seven times in the last seven minutes, leading to 10 Louisville points. The Cards are forcing opponents into turnovers on 27.3 percent of their possessions and have averaged 47 deflections per game in the tournament.
On the other hand, Michigan appears well-equipped to handle UofL's pressure, having turned the ball over on just 14.5 percent of its possessions, best in the nation.
Michigan, the youngest team in the tournament, with three freshmen and a sophomore starting, handled Virginia Commonwealth's all-out, "HAVOC" press with ease in the Round of 32, winning 78-53. But Beilein says the Wolverines face a difficult challenge with such a quick turnaround.
"Louisville gives you so many different looks," he says. "With a one-day prep, it's almost impossible to get ready for all those things. There will be some uniqueness to the way Rick does it, and we have to get ready for it as best we can and still make sure we're fresh. What you're hoping is that you've been getting ready since October 15. We've got to dribble it strong, pivot well, pass well, play with our eyes up."
Pitino, who will be announced as a 2013 Naismith Hall of Fame inductee here Monday, is on the cusp of an historic achievement. If UofL beats Michigan, Pitino will become the only coach in history to guide two different schools to a national championship, with the Cards joining his 1996 Kentucky juggernaut.
Not that Pitino cares, or so he insists.
"I haven't thought about it for one second until you mentioned it," he said. "It's really not that significant to me. We have built a brand on 'Louisville First'. Everything we do is about the team, about the family. I'd be a total hypocrite if I said it's really important. It really is not important. I want to win because I'm part of this team. That's it."
A Louisville victory would also give the school its first national title since 1986 and its third overall.
"It means a lot," UofL forward Chane Behanan says. "We haven't been to the national championship game since I don't know when, probably before I was born. I'm very glad to be a part of this tradition."
Michigan is working on a similar streak. Although the Wolverines played for the title with the Fab Five in 1992 and 1993 - later vacated because of NCAA violations associated with booster Ed Martin - their only championship came in 1989 under current San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who replaced Bill Frieder when Frieder took the Arizona State job at the end of the regular season.
Louisville, which has won 15 in a row while setting a school record for victories, is 2-0 vs. Michigan all-time, but the last meeting was in 1978. Pitino owns a 3-1 record vs. Beilein, with two of the wins and the loss coming when Beilein was at West Virginia. The other win was by Pitino's UK team over Beilein's Canasius squad.
Their only previous meeting in the NCAA Tournament was in the 2005 West Regional final in Albuquerque when UofL wiped out a 20-point second-half deficit and won 93-85 in overtime.