Title win caps off inspiring, special season for Louisville, Pitino
Rick Pitino sat on the back of a golf cart in the bowels of the Georgia Dome, spent and happy, as a clutch of reporters tried to squeeze a few more insights, a few more stories, a few more laughs out of him. An hour earlier, his Louisville Cardinals had come from 12 points behind to beat Michigan 82-76 in a game that had everything: clicking offenses, tenacious defenses, lead changes, are-you-kidding-me plays and stars and backups alike playing like heroes. "I knew it was going to be a great game," said Pitino. Winning it was the perfect cap to the most magnificent six days a basketball coach could imagine.
Last Wednesday, Pitino got a call from the Hall of Fame saying, 'you're in!' and he celebrated his 37th wedding anniversary with his wife, Joanne. The next day, his son Richard was named head coach at the University of Minnesota. Two days after that, a horse he co-owns, Goldencents, won the Santa Anita Derby to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. And Monday, he became the first coach ever to win a national title with two different schools. (His first title, in 1996, was with Louisville archrival Kentucky.) But there was one day left, Tuesday, to make the week complete, and Pitino was hoping to spin gold out of that, too. He planned to fly to New Orleans to watch the Louisville women's basketball team, coached by Pitino's good friend Jeff Walz, take on Connecticut in the NCAA title game. "If we could ever win two championships, men's and women's, it would absolutely be awesome," he said.
Whether the women win or lose Tuesday night (game time is 8:30 ET on ESPN), Pitino will never have a week like this again. But he still has much to look forward to in the next year -- and we're not just talking about the tattoo he promised his players he'd get if they won the national title. ("I think that was our biggest motivation, to get Coach P a tattoo," said senior guard Peyton Siva.) Louisville will lose Siva, and it's likely junior Gorgui Dieng will pivot toward the NBA (fellow junior Russ Smith will reportedly leave as well). But there are a lot of seasoned veterans returning, including sophomore forwards Chane Behanan, who had 15 points and a game-high 12 rebounds against the Wolverines, and Wayne Blackshear, who pitched in eight points, as well as freshman forward Montrezl Harrell, who had eight points and four rebounds against Wichita State. Add 6-foot-10 Mangok Mathiang, a freshman center from Sudan by way of Australia who sat out this year but practiced against Dieng all year, and the frontcourt is officially loaded. Swingman Luke Hancock, a transfer from George Mason who added his name to the shortlist of Louisville legends by scoring a combined 42 points, including eight threes, in two games to win the Most Outstanding Player award, will be back as well. Replacing the perimeter speed and quickness of Siva and Smith will be the job of a likely top-five four-player recruiting class that includes two point guards: Terry Rozier, a top-three prospect from Ohio who is spending a prep year at Hargrave Military Academy, and Chris Jones, one of the best point guards in the Juco ranks.
"We know next year we're going to have a big target on our back and we're going to have to get to work," says Blackshear. "That's our drive for next year, try to repeat."
Down the hall in Michigan's subdued locker room Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Juwan Howard, members of the so-called Fab Five that took Michigan to its last two NCAA finals, in 1992 and '93, worked the room, clasping shoulders and offering encouragement to the red-eyed Wolverines. But the Fab Five's presence did little to stem the disappointment or the sniffles of this year's crop of freshmen -- known as "the Fresh Five" -- including undersized backup point guard Michael "Spike" Albrecht, who had a stunning 17 points, including four threes, in the first half while he was spelling foul-plagued starter Trey Burke, and sharpshooter Nik Stauskas, who had just three points against the Cardinals. "It was one of the toughest emotions I have ever felt after a game," said Stauskas. "I love every one of these guys in this locker room. When you travel all year long together and you're with these guys every day, you bond with them. It's tough to know we won't be together again."
It had been an inspiring year: Five seniors, the so-called "investment committee," had stepped aside to allow the more talented underclassmen to flourish. This group had fought through a tough Big Ten schedule, coming together and swearing off Twitter after losing to 0-14 Penn State on Feb. 27, and pulling out a stunning comeback against Kansas. thanks to Burke's clutch three-point shot at the end of regulation in the Sweet 16.
Monday night was a frustrating end for the Wolverines, who had made it to the Final Four for the first time since Chris Webber's timeout debacle in the last moments of the '93 final. Behind Albrecht's hot hand, they had been in control for the first half. For the game they shot 52.1 percent from the field and still lost, bringing the school's record to 1-5 in national title games. But there was no bitterness or even negativity in the room. "We'll celebrate, we'll hang a banner in Crisler," said assistant coach Jeff Meyer. "And we should probably have the best highlight video of all time."
Standing near Meyer, sophomore forward Jon Horford considered what kind of sentiment from the night might fuel the Wolverines going forward. "I'm not a big fan of using anger as a motivator," he said. "Remember this angry feeling? No, remember this team feeling. Remember how we were as a team. How united we are, remember the bonds that we made. Remember how you sacrificed for your brothers. If we remember those things, I promise we'll be back next year."
A big question for Michigan, one that no one wanted to talk about Monday night, is who will be included in that next year. Freshman forward Mitch McGary wouldn't say whether he's planning to leave for the NBA, up whose draft boards he had been shooting by averaging 16 points and 11.6 rebounds in the tournament before his foul-plagued six and six performance on Monday. Junior guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. and freshman forward Glenn Robinson III also have career decisions ahead of them. Burke, who considered the NBA last year, before he became the national Player of the Year, is surely gone.
There will be holes, and coach John Beilein has signed three four-star recruits, point guard Derrick Walton, power forward Mark Donnal, and shooting guard Zak Irvin, Indiana's Mr. Basketball, to help fill them.
Wherever he ends up next year, McGary seemed inclined to look forward rather than back on Monday night. "We're going to wake up tomorrow and it's going to be a new day," he said.
In the other locker room, it was a slightly different story. Even as a triumphant season was being savored, the possibilities of the next one were looming. "I probably want to get back to watching it tomorrow," said Blackshear of the title game. "This is a game I'm always going to remember. It's my first national championship."