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NCAA title game brings back purity
This is what college sports needed: During a time when today’s collegiate athletics remains mired in an existential crisis, the Louisville Cardinals and the Michigan Wolverines stepped onto a basketball court in the middle of a football stadium on Monday and played a game for the ages.
For 40 minutes, we forgot about bullying coaches and referee scandals. We plugged our ears to NCAA hypocrisy and Ed O’Bannon lawsuits and that awful one-and-done rule. We sat on the edge of our seats and watched a back-and-forth 82-76 Louisville victory that reminded us what makes college sports one of the most pure and exciting institutions of America.
We had a coach who was announced as a Hall of Famer in the morning show us that night why he’s one of the greatest of all time. We had a backup point guard nicknamed Spike who subbed in for the Wooden Award winner and dropped an unexpected 17 points on Louisville in the first half, and we noted that Spike Albrecht’s given name is Michael Joseph – that’s M.J.
We had Louisville bench player Luke Hancock, who transferred here two years ago, hit all five of his 3-pointers – four of them in one minute, 59 seconds at the end of the first half to bring Louisville back in the game – and win the Most Outstanding Player award with his ailing father in the stands.
We had one of the most humble, gracious players in college sports, Louisville point guard Peyton Siva, taking over the game in the second half while his father – who a few years ago Peyton had talked out of suicide – cheered him on in the stands, yelling, “It’s all about Jesus, baby!”
We had the inspiring stories: the injured Kevin Ware cheering his team on courtside, the walk-on point guard Tim Henderson whose two key 3-pointers against Wichita State got Louisville to the title game, the out-of-nowhere Michigan freshman Mitch McGary who didn’t start all regular season then carried Michigan to this title game.
We had all these storylines playing into this season’s greatest display of pure basketball on the biggest stage, with the nation’s best offense playing the nation’s best defense and both teams playing their absolute best. And this is also what this sport needed, too, a fast-paced, high-scoring game that showed us what this too-slow game of college basketball looks like at a quicker tempo.
“A lot of times when you get to the Final Four, you get to a championship, the game’s not always great, not always pretty,” Pitino said afterward. “This was a great college basketball game.”
Yes, Mr. Hall of Famer, sir, yes it was – the best big-time game you’ve ever coached. Unlike Saturday’s game against Wichita State, where Louisville’s press was tentative and sluggish, the signature Pitino press worked wonders on Monday, and even though Louisville forced only 12 turnovers, it was that press that wore on Michigan all game. There were seven lead changes, none bigger than the monster dunk Montrezl Harrell threw down off a beautiful Siva lob with 22 seconds left in the first half. That dunk gave Louisville its first lead of the game, and extended the momentum from Hancock’s four straight 3-pointers. Louisville had been down 12 just three minutes before; now the team went back to the locker room in a one-possession game.
And while Spike stole the show in the first half as Michigan point guard Trey Burke got into foul trouble, he fell back to earth in the second half, not scoring a point and turning the ball over three times. As expected, Michigan coach John Beilein got hammered for his strategy of sitting the foul-plagued Burke for much of the first half – Albrecht ended up getting 28 minutes, the player of the year only got 26 – but the more crucial mistake was not knowing how many fouls his team had when the clock wound down, which cost Michigan precious seconds and a chance at a late-game rally.
But as great as Spike played, and as impressive as this Michigan team looked, this night was all about Louisville, one of the best examples of teamwork in American sports.
“This team is one of the most together, toughest, hard-nosed teams,” Pitino said. “We played a great team the other night in Wichita State and got outplayed for about 34 minutes of the game. But this team, being down never bothers us.”
After the buzzer sounded, as the finishing touches were being put on the “One Shining Moment” video, Kevin Ware stood on his crutches and watched as stadium workers lowered one of the baskets. He didn’t know this was coming, but the team wanted Ware to be the one to finish snipping down one of the nets, and so they lowered the nets and he did, then he draped the net around his neck and watched “One Shining Moment” with an arm around Chane Behanan, his close friend.
In the Louisville locker room afterward, there were plenty of reminders that this group of men – the ones who all season had taught us about the importance of family – were in many ways a bunch of kids. They joked about what sort of tattoo Pitino would get, since he promised the team before the season he’d get a tattoo if Louisville won the national championship. (Siva suggested a tramp stamp.) Henderson farted while teammate Stephan Van Treese spoke to reporters, and Van Treese paused his interview to pretend to gag. Behanan said he was going to celebrate by chilling with his mom. Siva pulled out his iPhone and saw he had 126 new messages. Others looked on their phones to see pictures of the University of Louisville campus, where celebrations raged.
It’s amazing to think, but when college basketball is at its best like it was on Monday night, we aren’t just watching a bunch of hyper-athletic players throwing lobs and draining threes. We’re watching a group of 18- to 22-year-old young men teach us a lesson about life.
“We typify what college basketball is all about,” Siva said as he massaged his cramping thighs. “We got different people from different backgrounds, and everybody just really came together. For us to really bond like this, we really have a family.”
“College basketball is more than just one-and-dones,” he continued. “It’s a family. It just shows that there are teams out there who are family and worried about college instead of other things.”
It was a beautiful story to end a less-than-beautiful season, a beautiful display of basketball in front of a record national championship crowd. And it was, in the end, the perfect antidote to all that ails today’s college sports.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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