ATLANTA – The hoops teams at Louisville and Michigan are used to being overlooked.
The Cardinals may be a national powerhouse, but they still are considered second fiddle in their own state. The Kentucky Wildcats are the blue bloods of the bluegrass, while Louisville settles for being viewed as more of a blue-collar school.
The Michigan basketball team knows what that’s like. Football rules on the Wolverines’ campus – rightly so, said Tim Hardaway Jr., given that program’s long, storied history.
“We still have a ways to go,” said Hardaway, Michigan’s junior guard. “Football has a lot more national championships than we do.”
Well, it’s kind of hard to overlook either team now.
Louisville and Michigan will meet tonight in the NCAA championship game.
The Cardinals (34-5) have lived up to their billing as the tournament’s top overall seed, blowing through their first four opponents before rallying from a dozen points down in the second half to beat surprising Wichita State, 72-68, in the national semifinals.
It’s been quite a run for the Louisville athletic program, in general. The women’s basketball team also reached the Final Four, while the football team won a Big East title and stunned Florida in the Sugar Bowl. All the while, they’re battling with Kentucky for the state’s affections.
“We’re not a who’s who like Harvard and Yale in the alumni world,” coach Rick Pitino said Sunday. “We’re a blue-collar school that supports each other. One of the coolest places I’ve ever worked.”
Pitino should know. He also worked at Kentucky, leading the Wildcats to a national title in 1996.
Now, he’s got a chance to become the first coach to win championships at two schools.
“I haven’t thought about it for one second,” insisted Pitino, already the first coach to guide three schools to the Final Four. “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 [winning another title is] really important. It really is not important. I want to win because I’m part of this team. That’s it.”
Football may come first at Michigan (31-7), but the Wolverines haven’t exactly been pushovers on the hardwood.
They won a national title in 1989, beating Seton Hall in overtime, and they’ve lost three other times in the championship. The school is best known for the Fab Five, that group of five stellar recruits who led Michigan to back-to-back final appearances in 1992 and ’93.
This team is cut from the same mold, with three freshmen starters and two other first-year players who made big contributions in a semifinal victory over Syracuse.
“The Fab Five was a great team. I mean, a really great team,” said freshman guard Caris LeVert, who came off the bench to score eight points against the Orange. “They did some great things for our school.”
But these guys can do something the Fab Five never did – win it all.
“Just making it to the Final Four, we are going to hang up a banner in the Crisler Center,” said another freshman, Glenn Robinson III. “But we aren’t done. Having the chance to hang another one up for a national championship ... is all kind of surreal to us.”
Both teams got to this point with crucial assists from the backups.
LeVert and Spike Albrecht – yep, another freshman – both hit a pair of 3-pointers in Michigan’s semifinal win, points that were desperately needed with player of the year Trey Burke struggling through a brutal night. The sophomore guard made only 1-of-8 shots and finished with seven points, just the second time this season he’s been held in single digits.
Burke said he’ll gladly hand off the scoring duties to someone else again Monday if the Cardinals take a similar approach to Syracuse.
“Pretty much every time I got the ball, I had two people in my face,” he said. “I tried not to force anything, but I probably forced two or three shots. That 3 I hit (from way out and his only basket of the game) wasn’t a good shot. But I try not to force things and just look for different ways to find the open man.”
Louisville, inspired by the gruesome injury to Kevin Ware but needing others to step up while he’s down, got an even bigger contribution off the bench than Michigan.
Luke Hancock scored 20 points. Walk-on Tim Henderson, moving up in the rotation because of Ware’s broken leg, knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers that turned the momentum when it looked as though Wichita State might pull off another shocker.
There’s always a chance for the more obscure players to step up on the biggest stages.
“Those guys, not that you don’t pay attention to them, but your strategy is not toward them.” Pitino said. “We’re all trying to stop the great players defensively, choreograph our defensive plan to stop the great players.”
But there’s no doubt that Michigan needs Burke to have a much better game, especially against Louisville fearsome press, just as the Cardinals will be counting on Russ Smith to lead the way. He scored 21 points in the semifinals despite a woeful night at the foul line.
Smith is on the verge of completing quite a journey, considering it looked for a while like he might not even finish his career with the Cardinals. Unhappy with his playing time and constantly sparring with Pitino, the now-junior guard considered transferring after his freshman season.
Boy, he’s sure glad he stayed.
“I was leaving, but I talked to my dad and decided to come back,” Smith remembered. “I decided to work hard and try to earn some minutes.”
He still gets into it with Pitino from time to time — remember, the coach dubbed him “Russdiculous” for some of the shots he puts up — but it’s hard to envision where this team might be without him.
“I just try to make winning plays,” Smith said. “I don’t look at myself as a point guard or a shooting guard. I look at myself as a winning player.”
Pitino has tried to stress to his players the importance of winning one more game. They may hang a banner for making it to the Final Four at Louisville, too, but the best way to ensure you don’t get overlooked is to win it all.
To drive that point home, he showed his team the recent documentary on North Carolina State’s improbable title in 1983, the one that left coach Jim Valvano running around the court looking desperately for someone to hug, the one that his players still get together to reminisce about — on and off camera.
“We were the No. 1 seeds. We weren’t Cinderellas like N.C. State,” Pitino said. “But I wanted them to understand that because (the Wolfpack) won a championship, for the rest of their lives they will sit around that table. Every year, they will get together — for the rest of their lives.”