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Michigan vs. Louisville: NCAA basketball title game pits youth vs. experience

The youngest team in the tournament faces one of the most battle-tested as Michigan tries to upset Louisville's cast of upperclassmen.

Kevin C. Cox

The Louisville Cardinals and Michigan Wolverines, playing for the NCAA national championship Monday night, could not be more different.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino has been to seven Final Fours throughout his career. Michigan coach John Beilein, on the other hand, is making his first trip.

Louisville is undoubtedly a basketball school. Michigan loves them some football.

And, perhaps most relevant to Monday's championship game, the Cardinals are one of the most experienced teams in the nation. The Wolverines, meanwhile, were the youngest team in the entire NCAA Tournament and one of the most youthful squads ever to reach the title game.

For Louisville, their top three scorers are upperclassmen -- and of their six players averaging at least 20 minutes, there aren't any freshmen. After reaching the Final Four last season, the Cards brought back most of their roster.

Senior point guard Peyton Siva, who averages nearly 10 points and six assists a game, does a terrific job running the show on both ends of the floor. He's as battle-tested as any player in the nation.

Junior guard Russ Smith leads Louisville in scoring at 18.9 points a game, and he's been forced into big situations time and time again. Gorgui Dieng, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, is a junior who has gone up against all different kinds of post players.

Through the first five games in the NCAA Tournament, the Cardinals have had few problems coming out focused. They won their first two games by 57 points, and responded any time Oregon or Duke tried to make a run during the second week of play. Wichita State got hot on Saturday and held a double-digit lead midway through the second half, but the Cardinals remained calm, cool and collected as they rallied past the Shockers in the closing minutes.

With the bright lights on in the Georgia Dome, don't expect Louisville to get rattled.

It's tough to recall recent champions with so many upperclassmen who played big-time minutes. North Carolina cruised to a national title back in 2009 with plenty of experience on the roster. The Florida Gators during their back-to-back title runs relied on experienced players under the same bright lights.

But last year's champions, the Kentucky Wildcats, were led by a couple of freshmen. When Kemba Walker and Connecticut won it all in 2011, the majority of Walker's supporting cast were freshmen or sophomores.

There's something to be said for having been there before, and coach Pitino enters the Georgia Dome hoping his group of older players won't break mentally.

Michigan, on the other hand, is very young. And that's hardly a slight or knock on coach Beilein's team -- they're incredibly talented, and they've handled tough situations well all year long. The Wolverines start three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. Unless they're either winning or losing by a ton of points in the final minute, it's unlikely a senior will see the floor.

Trey Burke is one of the best players in the nation. The sophomore point guard, who won the John Wooden Award this past week, averages 18.5 points and 6.8 assists a night. Burke did not play particularly well against Syracuse, and he'll need to pick up his game if Michigan has any hopes of cutting down the nets.

Tim Hardaway Jr. has missed 22 of his last 29 shot attempts, but he's more than capable of changing the game whenever he's on the floor. As a junior who's seen a wealth of playing time during his three years in Ann Arbor, it'll be crucial that he keeps everyone's emotions under control.

Then there are the freshmen. Mitch McGary has emerged as one of the nation's top big men the past few weeks, terrorizing teams with his nonstop energy and rebounding prowess. Nik Stauskas is one of the top shooters in the country, hitting nearly 44 percent of his 3-pointers. Glenn Robinson III attacks the rim at will, rebounds at a high rate and plays strong defense.

Despite being young, the Wolverines have stared adversity in the face whenever it finds them. They gritted out an impressive comeback to force overtime and ultimately win against top-seeded Kansas, and they managed to hang on against Syracuse on Saturday night. In their other three tournament games, coach Beilein's squad has won by at least 15 points.

There's no denying the college game has changed over the past 25 years. Seldom do you see teams with experience such as Louisville's. Instead, you see teams like Michigan, which are loaded with young prospects a couple of months away from the NBA.

It seems that Michigan's early 1990s "Fab Five" team was what really signified the start of a new era in college hoops. Coaches began searching for immediate impact prospects who would likely only be around for a season or two. As the years have passed, coaches have learned they typically have to find a balance of experienced upperclassmen and up-and-coming underclassmen to win the Big Dance.

Despite being immensely talented and athletic, Michigan's Fab Five teams never won the national title. They were the runners-up in both 1992 and 1993, falling to Duke and North Carolina, respectively.

When the two teams meet on Monday night, there will be no shortage of storylines. The most important one, though, will be the contrasting rosters of these two schools.

Will it be the battle-tested Cardinals or youthful Wolverines who cut down the nets in Atlanta? We're 40 minutes away from finding out.


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