Fowler: Michigan’s Trey Burke, Louisville’s Russ Smith hold keys to their respective teams’ victories

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comApril 8, 2013 

— Michigan’s Trey Burke is dazzling, so good he has been named the consensus national player of the year in college basketball.

Louisville’s Russ Smith hasn’t gotten the same accolades, but he may be even better.

Whichever one of those two guards plays better may well determine the outcome of what should be an entertaining NCAA title game Monday at 9:23 p.m. in the Georgia Dome.

Smith and Burke are the heartbeats of their respective teams. They were both modestly recruited, owing in part to their average height (6 feet apiece) and their weight. Smith weighed 147 pounds when he showed up on Louisville’s campus. Burke weighed 172 when he showed up at Michigan’s. Each has gained 18 pounds of muscle since.

While Burke plays point guard for Michigan and Smith is mostly a shooting guard, each figures into almost every possession. Each could also be playing his last collegiate game. Burke is a sophomore and Smith is a junior, and each has a decision to make soon as to whether to enter the NBA draft early.

Before that, though, comes Monday night. Smith has had an amazing NCAA tournament, averaging 25 points in Louisville’s five games. He is a “contortionist,” as Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said – changing his body angle at the last second to get off shots against a taller opponent.

Smith reminds a lot of people of the Charlotte Bobcats’ Kemba Walker because of his New York background and the way he can get to the rim so often. It’s a comparison Smith likes but is bashful about, because he idolizes Walker and doesn’t believe he has done enough to have his name uttered in the same breath.

“I have too much respect for Kemba to compare him to me,” said Smith, who scored 23 points in Louisville’s 22-point Elite Eight win against Duke.

As a freshman, Smith mostly wanted shots.

“Russ wanted to score 30-something points a game,” coach Rick Pitino said, recalling Smith as a freshman. “That’s all he cared about. … He had to learn how to play the game the right way.”

Smith wasn’t enamored with Pitino’s system at first. He considered transferring after his freshman season and said if he did so he would be at a “low- to mid-major school” scoring a “ridiculous” amount of points but not winning nearly as often. Instead, he stayed at Louisville and became a far more complete player.

Burke has remarkable ball-handling skills and absolutely torched Virginia Commonwealth’s “Havoc” press in an NCAA tournament game, which makes you wonder how effective Louisville’s full-court press will be Monday.

In the Sweet 16, Burke scored all 23 of his points against Kansas in the second half and overtime – and also contributed 10 assists – in what was the single best performance of this NCAA tournament so far.

On Saturday in the national semifinal, though, Burke had a bad shooting night. He went 1-for-8 from the field and scored only seven points against Syracuse’s vaunted zone.

Burke is a far more effective offensive player against the sort of man-to-man defense Louisville plays, however, especially in pick-and-roll situations. And Michigan coach John Beilein contends Burke’s game against Syracuse wasn’t that bad anyway.

“I bristled a little bit last night when people say that Trey Burke had an off game,” Beilein said Sunday. “Trey Burke did so many things behind the scenes in that game that we don’t win without Trey Burke. We don’t come close.”

Louisville, with Smith and fellow guard Peyton Siva using their fast hands to create countless steals, might play the best defense in college basketball. Michigan, with Burke finding his teammates and creating his own shot, might play the best offense.

Burke predicted a championship game that could get into the 80s for its final score, which would be a far cry from the 25-point halves so common in the collegiate game these days.

Wouldn’t that be fun? And if Burke and Smith play at their highest level, we could be in for one of the most spectacular championship games ever.

Fowler:; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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