|#10 Michigan (31-8)||38||38||76|
|#2 Louisville (35-5)||37||45||82|
Too young. Too inexperienced. The youngest team in this year’s tournament field was supposed to bow out of the tournament by the end of the first weekend. They had limped to a 6-6 regular season finish that included an embarrassing loss to Penn State, a team that finished the season just 2-16 in Big Ten play.
But something magical happened.
Five games into the Big Dance, not once had the unanimous Big Ten and National Player of the Year, Trey Burke, led the team in scoring. Yet they had won every one of them. Sure, he saved the season with an iconic 30-foot three against Kansas, but he hadn’t played like a player of the year for most of that game. Instead, other stars blossomed.
In the opener against South Dakota State, who many picked to knock off the Wolverines, it was Glenn Robinson III who stole the show, matching his season-high with 21 points. Next, it was Mitch McGary’s turn to shine with a 21-point, 14-rebound performance against VCU, another team that most expected to send Michigan packing.
In that Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas, McGary out-performed All-American Kansas center Jeff Withey with 25 points and 14 boards while Burke was held scoreless in the first half. Against Florida in the Elite Eight, Nik Stauskas stepped up, hitting all six of his three-point attempts en route to a 22-point game and a 20-point Michigan win. Not to be outdone, the less heralded of the freshmen, Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht rose to the occasion in the Final Four with eight and seven points, respectively, to help Michigan top Syracuse. McGary led the way once again with his third double-double in four games while Burke was held to just seven points.
All five freshmen made major contributions to the team’s improbable tournament run. Fab Five they were not, but they didn’t need to be. Twenty years after that illustrious and polarizing squad took Michigan to the brink of a national championship as sophomores, the Fresh Five did the same. And with the legends in attendance, they took the court looking to do one better.
But it wasn’t meant to be, as Michigan raced out to a 12-point first half lead only to watch it whittle down to one by halftime. In the second half, the lead was gone they were forced to play catch up for the remainder of the game. The youthful Wolverines and the experienced Cardinals went blow-by-blow in one of the greatest national championship games ever played – certainly the first half could make a case for the greatest half ever played.
It was the stuff of legends, a legend so deep that the star of the first half was Albrecht, who averaged just 1.8 points per game all season. The kid who looks more like Frodo than a basketball star, and was only recruited at the last minute last April as a safety net in case Burke went pro after his freshman season, scored 17 points and helped Michigan jump out to that big lead.
It was a legend so deep that at one point, on the nation’s biggest stage, in front of the Fab Five who were all in the same building together for the first time since 1994, John Beilein put all five freshmen on the court at the same time. Burke sat on the bench with two fouls. Hardaway sat to get a breather. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford sat too. It was a glimpse of what’s to come for Michigan basketball when Burke and Hardaway depart for the NBA, likely as soon as the next week or two. It lasted only but for a minute, but in that moment, Michigan basketball was on top of the world.
Luke Hancock, Louisville’s own unlikely star, a lightly-recruited transfer from George Mason, brought Michigan back to earth. His four straight threes helped cut Michigan’s lead to just one at halftime and he earned the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player award.
In the end, Michigan’s magical run came up just short, but it was fun. The way the game played out was symbolic of the entire season. Michigan struggled all season long with coming out of the gate in big games. In Columbus, the Wolverines trailed 24-6 in the first 10 minutes before a rally came up just short. In Bloomington, Michigan fell behind 26-11 in the first 10 minutes before nearly pulling off a comeback. In this one, Michigan charged out of the gates, confidently seizing a big lead. But this night’s opponent did what it, and Michigan, has done all season – come back from a large deficit – and it was just good enough to hand Michigan defeat.
The 96th team in program history will return to Ann Arbor this afternoon and clean out their lockers. Burke and Hardaway, and perhaps McGary and Robinson III, will contemplate whether their futures are at the next level or whether they can put that off for one more year to make another title run. Whatever choice they make will be just fine. Selfishly, it would be nice if they came back. But if they don’t, what they gave us was a legacy that will be remembered alongside that of the Fab Five, perhaps with even greater reverence because they did it with class and humility right to the very end.
As fans, we will turn our attention to football season, but for the first time in a long time, we will do so with our heads held high. We will do so with an eagerness for the next basketball season to begin because it’s fun again. It’s not just something to fill the time between bowl games and September. Michigan basketball is back and the world knows it. Thank you, Team 96.
|Final Game Stats|
|01||Glenn Robinson III*||3-4||0-1||6-8||1||1||2||1||12||2||0||0||0||38|
|10||Tim Hardaway Jr.*||5-13||0-4||2-4||0||5||5||0||12||4||2||0||0||35|