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Cards will try to cool off hot-shooting Michigan with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

The last time Louisville and Michigan met, it was for the national championship. This time the stakes aren’t quite as high, but they’re high enough, with each team needing a victory to keep this year’s title hopes alive.

UofL (25-8), the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional, dispatched No. 15 Jacksonville State (20-15) 78-63 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis Friday afternoon after No. 7 Michigan (25-11) edged No. 10 Oklahoma State 92-91 to advance to Sunday’s second round. The survivor will punch their ticket for a Sweet Sixteen berth in Kansas City next week.

The Cardinals won the 2013 national trophy in Atlanta by beating the Wolverines 82-76, with Luke Hancock providing the spark by hitting all five of his three-pointer en route to a team-best 22 points. Both clubs are looking for their first trip to the Final Four since then.

UofL (25-8), the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional, dispatched No. 15 Jacksonville State (20-15) 78-63 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis Friday afternoon after No. 7 Michigan (25-11) edged No. 10 Oklahoma State 92-91 to advance to Sunday’s second round (UofL Athletics Photo)

Long-distance shooting — or lack thereof — will play a major role in this meeting too. It’s an interesting matchup that features a trendy darkhorse pick to make the Final Four and a surprising squad that is being called a Team of Destiny.

The red-hot Wolverines, of course, are the latter, having courageously gathered their wits after what could have been a devastating plane crash to win four straight games and capture the Big Ten Tournament crown as the No. 8 seed.

Departing the day before the tourney in Washington D.C., Michigan’s plane aborted a landing and skidded off the runway at 150 mph, but nobody was seriously injured. The Wolverines flew to D.C. the next morning and clobbered Illinois 75-55 a few hours after landing, then upset regular season champ Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin to win the title.

“Definitely was tough on all of us,” Michigan senior forward Zak Irvin said. “The hardest part was just getting back on a plane. Once we landed back in D.C., we felt like, why can’t we go out and win this thing. Why can’t this be one of the greatest stories ever told.”

The Wolverines did just that, and now are working on another chapter.

“Winning the Big Ten Tournament was a big accomplishment, but it doesn’t end there for us,” sharpshooting senior point guard Derrick Watson Jr. said. “We have our sights set on bigger things.”

And standing in the way are the Cards, who will have to play considerably better than they did against an outmanned and much smaller Jax State outfit that was a 20-point underdog but managed to stay within striking distance most of the way.

“Jacksonville State never stopped,” UofL coach Rick Pitino said. “We had relentless pressure on them, but they kept staying in the game.”

Of most concern to Pitino was the Gamecocks’ ability to burn UofL’s defense from deep, hitting 10-of-19 three-pointers, because the Cards will face a much tougher challenge in that department from Michigan.

The Wolverines drilled 11-of-15 treys in the second half against Oklahoma State and finished 16-of-29 for 55.2 percent. Watson, a poised veteran who had 26 points and 11 assists, nailed 6-of-9 trifectas, and four other teammates also contributed to the barrage.

Walton Jr. became the first player to record at least 25 points and 10 assists in an NCAA tournament game since Dwyane Wade had 29, 11 and 11 rebounds for Marquette in the Golden Eagles’ Elite Eight upset of Kentucky in 2003. Walton is just the sixth player to record the feat since assists became an official NCAA stat in 1984.

“When you have a great point guard who you’ve got to contain and if you help. . .,” Pitino says. “Look, we know how good Michigan is. We’re playing against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday. I watched the second half and I’ve never seen shooting like that since I’ve been a coach. It’s incredible the way they shoot the basketball. And it looks like it’s going in the moment it leaves their hands, so it’s going to be a tough task for us.”

Pitino had seen Michigan once before in person this season, when he watched his son Richard’s Minnesota team beat the Wolverines 83-78 in overtime on Feb. 19 in Minneapolis.

“But since that point, seeing them today, they are an entirely different team,” Pitino says. “It will be the toughest second round matchup I’ve had since I’ve been in this business. They’re lethal and they’re on a great run right now. I think it will be a heck of a game.”

Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood, whose team shot 55 percent itself and outrebounded Michigan by 19…and still lost, doesn’t envy Louisville’s assignment.

“You run into so many problems with trying to defend Michigan, and John (coach John Belein) does a great job of spacing the floor,” Underwood said. “They have so many shooters. It gets hard to take everything away from them. You go 11-of-15, that’s hard to do in a gym by yourself. They hit some hard shots and they pass it so well.”

As for UofL’s offense, the Cards will undoubtedly have to hit some outside shots themselves after dominating in the paint and on the boards against Jax State. The winners scored 44 points inside and had 24 second-chance points. After getting off to a slow start, missing 10 of their first 11 shots, they made 17-of-26 (65.3 percent) in the second half to finish at 48.4 percent.

If the Cards are going to keep pace with Michigan offensively, they’re going to need leading scorer Donovan Mitchell to snap out of his shooting slump. The sophomore guard was 10-of-38 (27.8 percent) in his last three games coming into the NCAA Tournament and missed his first 11 shots. He didn’t get his first basket until six minutes remained, then hit two more and a free throw to finish with nine points. He contributed in other ways, though, with a game-high 10 rebounds, a team-best five assists and three steals.

“Realizing the games we lost I didn’t play well, I was forcing the issue and not really doing other things, excelling in other parts of my game,” Mitchell said. “So I made it a point to go to the glass and get my teammates a shot and play great defense.”

Mangok Mathiang led UofL with 18 points, while Quentin Snider and Deng Adel each had 16 points and Ray Spalding added 11 for only his second game in double figures in the last 15.

Louisville and Michigan played three common opponents this season — Indiana, Purdue and Virginia Tech. UofL defeated that trio, while Michigan went 4-1, beating IU and Purdue twice each but losing to the Hokies 73-70 on Nov. 30 in Ann Arbor.

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