By Dan Wolken, USA Today Sports
ATLANTA - Rick Pitino doesn't need to win the national championship on Monday night to get into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He already took care of that this weekend. And he certainly doesn't need to beat Michigan to secure his legacy as one of the all-time greatest college coaches.
But if Louisville can beat Michigan, Pitino will do something nobody in history has done: Win an NCAA title at two different schools.
It has been 17 years since Pitino's Kentucky juggernaut rolled through the NCAA tournament, beating No. 4 seed Syracuse in the championship game. And though he's now taken Louisville to the Final Four three times in 12 seasons, this would be the crowning achievement of his career. And especially to do it in the shadow of John Calipari's Kentucky program, which breezed to the title last season and looked ready to overwhelm college basketball for the foreseeable future.
BOX SCORE:Michigan 61, Syracuse 56
"It means a lot," Louisville forward Chane Behanan said. "We haven't been to the national championship since I don't know when, probably before I was born. I'm very glad to be a part of this tradition."
To be precise, the Cardinals haven't won or played for a national championship since 1986 - about 6 ½ years before Behanan was born.
Louisville's opponent is working on a similar streak.
Though the Wolverines played for the title in 1992 and 1993 - later vacated because of NCAA violations associated with booster Ed Martin - only a 1989 national championship banner hangs in Crisler Arena.
Since the so-called "Fab Five" left campus after those consecutive championship game trips, there have been more bad days than good for Michigan basketball. After the probation and the postseason ban in 2003 and the mediocrity of the Tommy Amaker era, it took an unflashy hire in John Beilein from West Virginia to spark a turnaround that now culminates with a trip to the title game.
Michigan, the youngest team in the tournament, could present significant problems for Louisville. Though the Wolverines struggled late in the regular season and went 3-4 in February, they've improved their defense significantly in the NCAA tournament and probably won't be rattled by the Cardinals' full-court pressure. Michigan handled Virginia Commonwealth's all-out, "HAVOC" press with ease in the Round of 32, winning 78-53.
"We thought about that already just when we played Florida (in the Elite Eight) because (VCU coach) Shaka (Smart) had been on the Florida staff at one time," Beilein said. "Rick has a tremendous tree of coaches out there, so now we're playing the man himself who invented a lot of this jump and run and different types of traps. So there's been some preparation involved along the line, but seeing firsthand, the way Rick does it, there will be some uniqueness to it, and we just have to get ready the best we can and still make sure we're fresh."
LOUISVILLE:Reserves rally Cardinals past Wichita State
BOX SCORE:Louisville 72, Wichita State 68
Michigan has made 40.2% (33-of-82) of their three-pointers in the tournament to get to the Final Four. But it was one shot - point guard Trey Burke's desperation heave in the final seconds of regulation against Kansas - that changed everything for the Wolverines, allowing them to get to overtime and ultimately past the Sweet 16.
If Michigan goes on to win the title, Burke's shot will go down as one of the forever moments in NCAA tournament history alongside Tyus Edney's coast-to-coast layup for championship-bound UCLA and Mario Chalmers' tying three-pointer for Kansas against Memphis in the 2008 title game.
Had Syracuse beaten Michigan in Saturday's semifinal, pregame preparation wouldn't have been a huge factor in the championship game since Louisville and the Orange already played three times this season in the Big East.
WICHITA STATE:Shockers respond to "iffy" late call
Instead, Pitino said the Cardinals would have "a lot of preparation" during the 48-hour turnaround but stressed that fatigue was more of a factor.
"One of the key things right now when you're a pressing team is that you stretch, get a nice walk-through, but don't use up your legs," Pitino said. "We had to work really, really hard tonight."
The most significant intangible for the game can be found on the Louisville bench, but not wearing a tailored suit. Guard Kevin Ware of the now mythical compound fracture in last week's regional final against Duke, was with his teammates Saturday, cheering them and even once hobbling over to get in the huddle during a timeout. Ware, who coincidentally is from the Atlanta area, is also expected to attend the title game, providing a bit more inspiration.
Louisville is 2-0 vs. Michigan all-time, but the last meeting was in 1978.