ATLANTA — Eat your heart out basketball fans, for Monday’s NCAA tournament title game shall be a buffet of gluttonous proportions.
Last year, the championship game was a mere steppingstone toward a larger goal for national champion Kentucky, which had a record six players selected in the NBA draft, and runner-up Kansas, which had two. This year’s installment between Louisville and Michigan might not feature a similarly eye-popping horde of first-round locks, but the high-wattage star power could easily fuel the Georgia Dome.
The Wolverines’ Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III boast the NBA names and genes. Cardinals guard Russ Smith has become college basketball’s most fascinating figure, equal parts brilliance and blunder. Michigan point guard Trey Burke might need a closet to stock his treasure trove of national awards. Throw in NCAA tournament standouts Mitch McGary and Luke Hancock, and the talent pool starts to overflow. And that’s without mentioning injured Louisville guard Kevin Ware, whose seated courtside presence filled every dead space on the CBS telecast of Saturday’s national semifinals.
“I think you got a lot of great players on that court,” Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said Sunday. “You don’t know which ones are going to step up. . . . A lot of teams when you watch them, you get nervous a little bit because they do so many things well. You have fun watching Michigan play basketball. The way they pass, cut, shoot, it’s a John Beilein team. They’re fun to watch. As a coach going to play them, I really enjoy watching them on film.”
Then there’s Pitino himself, whose hour-long media session Sunday contained a story about how he nearly became Michigan’s coach, passing references to two movies and several cracks at smiling center Gorgiu Dieng, sitting three seats to the left. In the past 72 hours, Pitino secured a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction, a horse that qualified for the Kentucky Derby and a third appearance in the national title game.
Still, Pitino talked Sunday about how he’s tried to teach himself humility, a trait absent during his days as coach at Kentucky and with the Boston Celtics.
“He’s changed,” said Michigan Coach John Beilein, who’s in his 21st year as a head coach. “Good coaches do. Actually faced his team at Kentucky, the championship team when I was at Canisius. Faced him three times at West Virginia with two overtime losses and a win. He continues to change. That’s what I’m trying to measure right now . . . what he’s doing the best right now. And he does everything well.”
Among the things Pitino and Beilein did well Saturday was getting the most out of their reserves when their stars had off nights. Louisville starting point guard Peyton Siva and Burke disappeared in the semifinals, shooting a combined 2 for 17. In Siva’s wake arose walk-on Tim Henderson, who scored three points in Big East games this season before canning two clutch corner three-pointers. Burke’s bad night was somewhat negated by sudden celebrity Spike Albrecht, who in just four minutes of play hit two long three-pointers of his own.
Before bringing his unlimited range to Michigan, Albrecht was scoffed at by a TSA officer at a Connecticut airport when he mentioned his future scholarship gig.
“It’s that mystery of the young kid, the altar boy, the choir boy like Spike, the 18-year-old kid that hasn’t played well coming in and making big baskets that makes this game so great,” Beilein said. “It’s incredible what the little guy has meant to college basketball, how it keeps being so exciting.”
To top it off, Louisville and Michigan genuinely might be the nation’s two best teams, boasting more than a lucky March Madness streak. The Cardinals have the nation’s top-ranked defense, according to efficiency measurements generated by statistical guru Ken Pomeroy, and forces the second-most turnovers. Michigan’s offensive efficiency also tops the country, according to Pomeroy, and has the lowest turnover percentage. Four Wolverines underclassmen – Burke, McGary, Hardaway and Robinson – are projected first-rounders according to NBAdraft.net. DraftExpress has Dieng as a first-rounder and Smith going in the second.
“To be honest with you, I’m just more star-struck with our guys and our staff and everybody that’s a part of this program, being able to go through this together,” Louisville assistant Wyking Jones said. “But they’re a fun team to watch. They’re athletic, they get up and down. They’re fun to watch as a basketball fan. They’re an exciting team, and I want to believe that we are as well. I think that all of that makes for a great game tomorrow night. Absolutely I think so.”
Recently, Pitino and his players watched ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary on legendary North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. After the film finished and the tears dried, Pitino asked his players to envision the future. They would gather at restaurants and slice through steaks, every five years or so reminiscing about that championship season now just 40 minutes away. And it’s not hard to imagine, sitting at a nearby table, fans who were here in Atlanta, too, whispering and staring and remembering just the same.