ATLANTA -- Sitting on the podium still enjoying the immediate afterglow of a national championship victory, Louisville senior guard Peyton Siva noted that he and sophomore forward Chane Behanan had watched a ton of tape of Denver Nuggets rebounding phenom Kenneth Faried this season. Siva said coach Rick Pitino had spent the second half of the season regularly imploring Behanan to hit the glass harder, and what better example to look at than a guy who's not only tearing up the NBA, but also helped end Louisville's season two years ago in a stunning upset in the Round of 64.
Before Monday night's title game, Siva confided that Behanan approached him and said "Thank you." Siva responded with "What?" and Behanan simply repeated, "Thank you."
Louisville fans will spend the foreseeable future saying the same to Behanan, as his resourcefulness and physical domination of Michigan in the second half was a major factor in the Cardinals' victory. Behanan had a double-double in the second stanza alone with 11 points and 11 rebounds, including seven on the offensive glass.
"Going into the game, we knew we had to have a lot out of Chane, because they don't have a typical [power forward]," Louisville assistant coach Kevin Keatts said in the winning locker room. "They play kind of a three at the four. We felt like we could win that battle if Chane would score inside and [his] rebounding."
Less talk and more action is a refreshing change for a player who spent the first year of his career courting controversy with his mouth and behavior. In December 2011, he declared that Louisville was going to go undefeated, "point blank, period." He followed that up during the NCAA tournament with a somewhat misconstrued statement that if Louisville got to the Final Four, "it's a piece of cake from there."
After some unspecified "summer incidents" that forced head coach Rick Pitino to put him on notice this past summer, Behanan (along with Kevin Ware) was suspended for Louisville's exhibition game against University of Pikeville and was banned from speaking to the media for the first semester this season.
Perhaps that series of indiscretions helps explain Behanan's understated media performances this weekend. During Saturday's breakout sessions, Behanan was asked about his matchup with Glenn Robinson III and mostly demurred, saying that anyone who gets to this point of the season is a good player. When it was suggested that his more sizable stature could be a major point of emphasis for a Cardinals team that struggled to score on Saturday, he got a bit more specific, but just barely.
"In my mind, I'll attack the game like that: Aggressively," Behanan said. "Scoring and rebounding, doing everything I could to help the team win, defensively as well. Like I said, we'll have to see tomorrow."
Keatts noted that Behanan's defense was a big key in Monday's win over the Wolverines, as the way Louisville was handling ball screens sometimes left Behanan defending guards in space. He moved his feet well and didn't let Michigan's perimeter players exploit the matchup. And after a quiet first half in which mostly everyone on the floor was watching Luke Hancock match Spike Albrecht three-ball for three-ball, Behanan then got busy against a younger, tiring and foul-plagued Michigan frontcourt.
He scored nine points during a 5.5 minute span in which Louisville went from trailing by one to up by five with 12:47 remaining. His layup after a steal by Wayne Blackshear gave Louisville the lead and they would never trail in the game again. Later on, with the Cardinals up by eight, Behanan had consecutive possessions on which he had back-to-back offensive rebounds. He missed several follows in that sequence, prompting Siva to later playfully accuse him of "padding his stats," but punctuated the effort with a final putback that made it 78-70 with 1:50 left, leaving the Cardinals to close things out.
After the game, his earlier tough-love strategy perhaps validated on the game's biggest stage, Pitino said that Behanan's suspension was simply a case of needing to grow up. Now he, and the rest of the Cardinals, are national champions. There's no more concern about mouthy quotes and youthful indiscretions, only effusive praise for a kid who spoke loudly solely with his effort and his results. "When the chips are down, things don't go well, that young man rises to a new level," Pitino said about Behanan. "There's no question, when I looked at him today, he shook my hand and said, 'Don't worry about me, I'll bring it tonight.' He always rises in big games. ... He was a monster tonight."