The greatest college basketball coach of all time, John Wooden, whom Rick Pitino tied on the all-time-wins list Monday night, spent 14 years of his life devising the “Pyramid of Success,” a system that teaches individuals and teams how to reach their potential. The final block that completes the pyramid is competitive greatness, being at your best when your best is needed. Both Louisville and Michigan exemplified the notion of competitive greatness in Atlanta in a riveting NCAA final.
NCAA finals have a knack for creating environments where unheralded players deliver exemplary performances. This was the case in the first half as Michigan, who were four-point underdogs, established a 12-point lead as National Player of the Year Trey Burke sat on the bench with foul trouble. In place of Burke, Michael “Spike” Albrecht, who averaged 1.8 points per game during the regular season, connected on four 3-pointers and scored 17 points in the first half. At this point, Michigan seemed to have control of the game. They had a comfortable lead and their best player was fully rested, ready for the second half. However, as they did against Wichita State on Saturday, Louisville proved they were a great team. Luke Hancock, a transfer from George Mason who averaged only 8.1 points per game during the season, scored 14 unanswered points as part of the Cardinals’ 16–3 run which took less than four minutes. John Beilein, the Michigan coach, opted not to put Burke back into the game at that point. This decision proved costly. With Burke on the bench, though Albrecht carried the scoring load, the Wolverines’ offense did not flow as smoothly. The change in the offense severely affected Mitch McGary, who had played fantastically during the first five games of the tournament. He scored only six points in the title game.
The half ended with Michigan clinging to a 38–37 lead. The makings of one of the greatest championship games had been established. In the second half, Louisville’s full court pressure began to take its toll. Michigan, the youngest team in the entire tournament, had 12 turnovers during the game. However, the press of Louisville is not what won them the game. Determination and senior leadership did. On a day when their leading scorer could only connect on 3–16 shot attempts, their other guard, senior Peyton Siva, carried the team by scoring 18 points, dishing out five assists and collecting six rebounds.
Whenever Michigan closed the gap on Louisville, the Cardinals responded with runs of their own, never letting the Wolverines get within less than three during the second part of the second half. It was during these stretches that the competitive greatness of Louisville was revealed. Sophomore Chane Behanan collected 11 rebounds during the second half, including seven offensive rebounds to go along with 15 points. During one stretch Behanan grabbed two offensive rebounds in one possession and eventually finished with a putback layup surrounded by four Michigan defenders. According to ESPN, Pitino said, “When the chips are down, things don’t go well, that young man rises to a new level. 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.’”
Behanan delivered his best when he needed it, and so did Louisville. That is why they are the national champions.
With this victory, Pitino becomes the first coach in Division I history to win a national championship at two institutions. This victory happens at an opportune time, as Pitino will also be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in September. Coach Wooden is also enshrined in Springfield. His teams, which won 10 championships in 12 years, were known for their fast breaks and dominant big men. The Cardinals’ style of play was quite similar. Louisville ran an upbeat offensive and defense, were led by upperclassmen in their backcourt, and also had NBA-talented big men who outrebounded Michigan 31–26. While the 2012–’13 Cardinals were not the Bruins of the ’60s and ’70s, both teams won championships and both teams exemplified competitive greatness.