ATLANTA — The basketball teams at Louisville and Michigan are used to being overlooked.
The Cardinals may be a national powerhouse, but they’re considered second fiddle in their own state. The Kentucky Wildcats are the blue bloods of the bluegrass, and 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 storied history.
“We still have a ways to go,” said Hardaway, a 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 meet Monday night 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 Saturday’s national semifinals.
It’s been quite a run for the Louisville athletic program. The women’s basketball team also reached the Final Four in New Orleans, while the football team won the 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 the 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 game. The school is best known for the Fab Five, that group of stellar recruits who led Michigan to title-game appearances in 1992 and ’93.
This team is cut from the same mold, with three freshman 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. The sophomore guard made only 1-of-8 shots and finished with seven points, just the second time this season he has 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 what Syracuse did.
“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.”
Louisville, inspired by the gruesome leg injury to Kevin Ware but needing others to step up, got an even bigger contribution off the bench.
Luke Hancock scored 20 points, and walk-on Tim Henderson, moving up in the rotation, knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers that turned the momentum when it looked as though Wichita State might pull off another shocker.
“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.”