Luke Hancock's star turn secures Rick Pitino's place in history
ATLANTA -- In the spring of 2011, Louisville coach Rick Pitino called up former George Mason assistant coach Chris Caputo for a scouting report on Luke Hancock. George Mason wouldn't allow Hancock to follow departing coach Jim Larranaga and transfer to Miami, which left Hancock testing the open market.
Hancock showed flashes he could play at the highest level, averaging 10.9 points per game as a sophomore at George Mason and hitting a game winning three-pointer in the NCAA tournament against Villanova. Caputo delivered an endorsement that proved startlingly prophetic.
"He's fearless," Caputo recalled telling Pitino, "and there's no moment too big."
In the biggest moment in college basketball on Monday night, Hancock lived up to his scouting report, leading Louisville to a 82-76 victory over Michigan for the school's third national title. He scored 22 points on a startlingly judicious six shots. He up-faked, lobbed and swished his way into NCAA lore, becoming the first bench player in the tournament history to win Most Outstanding Player.
"I'm going to be telling my kids, my grandkids, that I was playing basketball with that man," said Louisville walk-on Tim Henderson. "He's a Louisville legend right now."
From his emotional speech to injured Louisville guard Kevin Ware in the Elite 8 to holding the championship trophy on the post game dais to celebrating in front of his sick father, Bill, after the game, Hancock emerged as the indelible face of this NCAA tournament run. The Hancock family hasn't disclosed Bill's illness, but it's apparent that it's serious and Luke Hancock cherished the experience.
"It's been a long road," Hancock said. "There's really no way to describe how I feel that my dad was here. It's hard to put into words."
From a pure basketball perspective, Hancock's emergence is indicative of the evolution of modern college basketball. This Final Four -- with Hancock, Henderson and Spike Albrecht emerging as stars -- showed that the under-recruited overachiever can be more important than five-star blue chippers in the one-and-done era of modern college basketball.
Pitino stressed that his team led the nation in toughness and togetherness more than talent. And when melding teams in this transient era of college basketball, transfers like Hancock take on more importance, as they add a reliable and veteran presence on a landscape where youth often rules.
"Some people say that college basketball is watered down," Caputo said. "But the culture that's created for the really, really highly regarded guys isn't always conducive to the type of success some of the under-the-radar guys have. It's probably a little bit of both. Maybe it's better to be a little bit under the radar."
Another under-the-radar player, Michigan's Albrecht, nearly stole the show. He chose Michigan over his only other college scholarship offer -- Appalachian State -- and shocked everyone when he scored 17 points in the first half while spelling Trey Burke.
But Hancock led Louisville back in the game, scoring all 14 of Louisville's points in a 14-3 run that essentially negated Albrecht's flurry of three-pointers. Hancock hit four consecutive three-pointers, a spree that brought the Cardinals back in the game.
He also made two of the game's savviest plays. He drew two critical fouls with his patented up-fakes that drastically altered the course of the game by sending Michigan's two biggest stars to the bench for extended periods.
In the first half, Hancock drew a foul on Burke that sent him to the bench and limited him to six first-half minutes.
In the second half, Hancock's up-fake lured Michigan center Mitch McGary into a foolish fourth foul, allowing Louisville to dominant on the inside and build its lead from two points to six. Without McGary in the game, Hancock found Peyton Siva on a pretty lob dunk. But perhaps more important, McGary played tentative upon his return while Chane Behanan dominated the glass late in the game.
"You don't work on jumping into Mitch McGary," Hancock said, downplaying his contributions. "He's huge. When he came at me, he just kind of hit me."
The magnitude of the week for Pitino probably hasn't hit him yet. Along with winning his second national title and becoming the first coach to do so at two different schools, he got elected to the Hall of Fame and his son got the head coaching job at the University of Minnesota. He even had a horse -- Goldencents -- win the Santa Anita Derby, which solidifies it as a contender for the Kentucky Derby.
Pitino all along has deflected credit for his Hall of Fame selection to coaching great players, but the reality is that he won this title with significantly less horse power than in 1996. (Hancock was so lightly regarded in prep school that George Mason only found him when assistant coach Mike Huger discovered him while scouting another player).
Louisville entered this NCAA tournament as the top overall seed, but had to erase double-digit deficits in both Final Four games and overcome the loss of Ware, a key cog in Louisville's up-tempo system.
"You had no idea who was going to win going into this tournament," Pitino said. "I think that's so much fun as long as the game is well played. Tonight was a great championship game."
Back in 1996, Pitino said that his biggest challenge at Kentucky was managing the egos and getting them to meld together to win a championship. He called that team: "One of the best teams in the history of college basketball."
No one will mistake this Louisville team for an all-time bunch, but Pitino characterized it as "one of the most together, toughest, hard-nosed teams."
And Hancock's fuzzy beard will forever resonate as the face of that. When the moment became biggest, no one loomed larger for Louisville.