Tuesday, April 09, 2013

For Louisville, Basketball Championship Was In The Cards (I'm Shocked Jim Nantz Didn't Say This Obvious Pun At The End Of The Game)

I don’t know who came up with the quote, “It’s a shame someone had to lose that game,” but it’s apt here.  And even though we didn’t quite get an ending befitting the first rock-‘em, sock-‘em 33 ½ minutes of the NCAA Championship – that Luke Hancock-to-Peyton Siva alley-oop off a brush screen happened with 6:27 left and gave Louisville a two-possession cushion they never relinquished – three cheers to one of the most exciting college basketball title games we’ve seen in a long, long time.

Do you know who probably enjoyed this game more than anybody else?  The Klan.  I’m kidding, sorta, but a significant portion of this game, especially the vast majority of the first half, was influenced by the unsung white kids: Hancock for the victorious Cardinals, and Spike Albrecht of vanquished Michigan.  Albrecht sparked the Wolverines by draining his first five shots, four of them three-pointers, and his lay-up with four minutes left in the first half gave Michigan the first of two 12-point leads, the largest lead they would have in the game.

Albrecht, a freshman guard from Crown Point, Ind., who was offered a scholarship only from Appalachian St. before Michigan head coach John Beilein gave him one 13 months ago, was averaging only 1.8 points a game and hadn’t scored more than seven in a contest this year.  But he somehow finished with 17 very important points on 6-of-9 shooting (4-of-5 from three) in helping the Wolverines knock down the mighty Cardinals in the first 20 minutes.  A tousle-haired escapee from Hoosiers, Albrecht had a Wikipedia entry made for him while he was on the raised court of the Georgia Dome, and the number of followers on his Twitter account surpassed the number following his more well-known teammate, Glenn Robinson III, during the game.

But in an awesome and tense chess match, Rick Pitino answered Michigan’s white boy with a white boy of his own.  After Albrecht’s lay-up gave the Wolverines a 33-21 lead, Louisville’s Luke Hancock singlehandedly engineered a 14-3 Cardinals run to almost entirely erase the deficit before the half was over.  Just as his three-point shots began his team’s comeback from another 12-point deficit against Wichita St. in the national semifinals Saturday, Hancock brought his team back Monday from behind the arc as well, sinking four three-pointers in a row.  He finished with a hyper-efficient 22 points from a perfect 5-for-5 from behind the arc; his only miss was actually on a lay-up.

Also, Hancock provided his patented peskiness that indirectly knocked Michigan off its stride.  Hancock, a master all season of making defenders jump while faking a three, drew Trey Burke’s second foul halfway through the first half, sending the Naismith Award winner to the bench.  He also induced the ineffective Mitch McGary (six points, six rebounds) to jump while behind the arc in the second half.  He was thus awarded Most Outstanding Player honors, the first reserve to be named the MOP in the history of the NCAA Championship Game.

But Pitino was right during the presentation ceremony: You could have given the MOP to Chane Behanan.  The one big advantage Louisville had over Michigan was their presence inside, and after relying on driving into the paint in the first half, the Cardinals were able to pound it on the down low in the back 20 minutes.  That’s where Behanan stood tall: In the second half he scored eight of his 15 points in the block, and more importantly, he hauled down 11 rebounds, seven of them offensive.  Michigan outrebounded the Cardinals in the first half, 17-11.  But the sequence with two minutes left in the game, when Behanan missed his lay-up and then his tip-in but somehow got the ball back again despite being shrouded in three Wolverines before finally heaving it in, probably was the coup de grâce.

In fact, you could also give the MOP to Siva, fearlessly driving the lane time and again to scoring 18 points, or getting in Wolverine passing lines to rack up four steals.  But you ultimately have to give credit to Pitino.  In the first half, with his team being unable to stop Michigan (and in particular Albrecht) from sinking shots at will and getting stomped into a double-digit hole, you never got the feeling the Cardinals were panicking.  They’re used to it; they were down big to Wichita St. just two days before, as well as to Syracuse in the Big East Tournament final.  But keeping a team focused on executing and getting back into the game piece by piece is a fundamental objective of coaching.  Pitino was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame Monday morning.  He showed why he was elected Monday evening in Atlanta.

Nevertheless, in a game as tightly contested as this, the game can be seen as turning on certain plays.  While foregoing hindsight and a passive consensus by the Twittersphere and sports-talk radio callers, let’s go through a few things Michigan did and did not do:

·         I have a feeling that, come dawn, the big second-guessing will come from Beilein’s defensive strategy with about a minute left to go.  Caris LeVert lost a rebound on his own end while Michigan was down 78-74.  It then took the Wolverines 15 seconds before Jon Horford committed a foul.  Problem was that was only the team’s sixth foul; you need to get to seven before Louisville gets a one-and-one (assuming the foul is a non-shooting one, otherwise you shoot free throws regardless).  After the Cardinals inbounded it took Michigan another eight seconds before LeVert fouled Hancock with only 29 seconds left.  In his post-game press conference Beilein admitted there was a mistake … which means he’s probably going to tear one of his assistants a new a-hole for not telling him the team only had five team fouls before that whole debacle started.  What they should have done was hacked a Card as soon as Robinson sank two free throws with 1:20 left.

·         Beilein’s admission will probably shift blame away from the refs, who uniformly had an awful night according to the zeitgeist, but hey, refs always have an awful night according to the zeitgeist.  However, the foul referee Tony Greene called on Burke going up against a breaking Siva was a clean block, or at least a no-call.  It may not have been the turning point of the game because there still were five minutes left.  But the Wolverines looked tired against the well-conditioned Cardinals, and a thrilling block at that moment by a player who could carry a team on his back could have brought a second wind to, or coaxed a last stand from, Michigan.

·         After Hancock baited Burke into a cheap second foul, he was subbed out with 11:09 left in the first half.  He didn’t re-enter the game until the beginning of the second half.  Doug Gottlieb, a guy whose insight I like if it weren’t so obvious he was dropped into CBS/Turner’s coverage just to start stuff, kept harping at the end of CBS’s game coverage that Beilein’s decision to keep him riding the pine for the rest of the first 20 minutes cost Michigan the championship.  I have absolutely no idea if he could see that the Wolverines’ lead after Burke left ballooned from five to twelve before settling down to one at halftime.  And besides, if Beilein put Burke back in the game only for him to pick up a third foul in the first half, we’d be saying that was more of a screw-up than him forgetting his team only had five fouls at the end of the game.

·         And what happened to McGary?  He had to be the role player who would neutralize Behanan and Gorgui Dieng in the paint.  But after being the linchpin in their Final Four win over Syracuse Saturday night, he was bothered into four fouls in just 29 minutes of playing time, and the Cardinals outrebounded the Wolverines in the second half, 20-9.

Finally, let’s just remember all the shining moments that came out of this game – the tough shots, the back-and-forth scoring, the tough rebounding, the fearless diving for loose balls, and the dunks, oh my bleeping God, the dunks!  There are faults that can be picked on.  But get this: Michigan lost despite shooting 52% from the floor.  (Louisville’s shooting percentage?  46%.)  Both teams drained eight three-pointers.  Hell, Albrecht and Hancock together went a perfect 8-for-8 from deep in the first half.

A game that changed its character so much as it went on, yet provided quality play throughout (as well as scoring in a season that had a troubling paucity of it), is one worth celebrating and remembering.  Louisville takes home their third basketball trophy in school history, but I hope the players of Michigan, a program that should be contending for Final Fours for years to come, can watch this when the loss doesn’t hurt so much and recognize that not only did they give their all in one hell of a game, they kept us fans entertained late into the night and added a more-than-worthy chapter to this great American institution called the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Oh yeah – Kevin Ware got to cut down the net.  I didn’t want to forget him, but I think it’s cool that the game was so good that we kind of did.  He probably was fixated on the game, too.

Posted by WilliamSou at 2:49 AM


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