ATLANTA — Eat your heart out basketball fans, for today’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 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.”
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 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. Burke and Louisville starting point guard Peyton Siva 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 3-pointers. Burke’s bad night was somewhat negated by sudden celebrity Spike Albrecht, who in 4 minutes of play hit two long 3-pointers of his own.
To top it off, Louisville and Michigan might be the nation’s two best teams. 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 Wolverine 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.
“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.”