College Basketball Insider

Louisville-Michigan is a title game worth getting excited about

ATLANTA -- Rick Pitino's future became uncertain at Louisville in April 2009 because of an extortion attempt on him that exposed an affair with nasty allegations. The whole thing was ugly and unfortunate. College coaches had been fired for less, which is why it was reasonable to wonder if Pitino might be next. Meantime, John Beilein was 14-22 in the Big Ten through two seasons at Michigan, and the next two seasons would only produce a 16-20 record in the league, meaning Beilien was 30-42 in conference games after four years with the Wolverines. So things were OK but far from great, which is why it was reasonable to wonder if Michigan had hired the right man to replace Tommy Amaker.

And yet here we are.

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Against all odds, here we are.

There was a time -- and I just described that time in the first paragraph of this column -- when the idea that Pitino and Beilein would march Louisville and Michigan through March and into April seemed improbable. Hell, I couldn't have told you for certain four years ago that either would still have his same job in 2013. But the two 60-year-old men will now face each other, late Monday inside this Georgia Dome, with a national championship at stake, and legacies, to some extent, will undeniably be on the line. Pitino has a chance to become the first Division I basketball coach to win titles at different schools while Beilein has an opportunity to prove there's still room in coaching for, you know, actual coaches in the traditional sense, guys who X-and-O their way up the ranks rather than climb because they've figured out how to connect to prospects in a pure or not-so-pure way.

So that's the main storyline of this title game.

The Pitino angle.

And the Beilein angle.

But there are lots of other things to be excited about, too.

Louisville could become the second straight school from Kentucky to hang a banner -- and the second in three years from the Big East. (Editor's note: RIP Big East.) That's what oddsmakers suspect will happen, by the way. The Cards are 3 1/2-point favorites. But if Michigan upsets them, then the Wolverines will be the first Big Ten team to win a title since Michigan State in 2000, meaning the Big Ten's 12-year drought would be over.

You like offense?

Michigan has the nation's top-rated offense, according to KenPom.com. The Wolverines only turn the ball over on 14.5 percent of their possessions, which ranks first nationally. Their effective field goal percentage is 54.4 percent. That ranks 11th.

You like defense?

Louisville has the nation's top-rated defense, according to KenPom.com. The Cardinals force turnovers on 27.3 percent of opponents' possessions, which ranks second nationally. They steal the ball on 16.0 percent of opponents' possessions. That ranks second, too.

The Michigan star?

That's Trey Burke -- also known as the John R. Wooden Award winner, the Oscar Robertson Trophy winner, the Naismith Award winner and the Associated Press National Player of the Year. The sophomore is widely regarded as the best pure point guard prospect for June's NBA Draft. He's on the verge of solidifying himself as a face forever connected to a team -- like Mateen Cleaves with that Michigan State team in 2000, like Carmelo Anthony with that Syracuse team in 2003.

The Louisville star?

That's Russ Smith -- also known as "Russdiculous" because of a style of play that's sometimes brilliant but often reckless and dumb. When the junior guard is good, almost nobody is better, proof being how he's averaging 25.0 points per game in this NCAA tournament. But when Smith is bad, he's frustrating. Either way, he's undeniably fun.

Just like this matchup is undeniably fun.

No, it's not a matchup most (or even many) projected when this event started nearly three weeks ago. And it probably won't be as hyped as Kansas-Memphis in 2008. And it doesn't have the David vs. Goliath feel of Butler-Duke in 2010. And it won't feature a future No. 1 overall pick like Kentucky-Kansas last season. But it's good. It's really good. It's about as good as this wild and unpredictable season could produce.

Tip-off is set for 9:23 p.m. ET.

 
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