ATLANTA — Eat your heart out basketball fans, for tonight's NCAA Tournament title game shall be a buffet of gluttonous proportions.
Last year, the championship game was a mere stepping-stone toward a larger goal for national champion Kentucky, which had a record six players selected in the NBA draft, and runnerup Kansas, which had two. This year's installment between Louisville and Michigan might not feature a similarly eye-popping horde of first-round locks, but the high-wattage star power could easily fuel the Georgia Dome.
The Wolverines' Tim Hardaway and Glenn Robinson boast the NBA names and genes. Cardinals guard Russ Smith has become college basketball's most fascinating figure, equal parts brilliance and blunder. Michigan point guard Trey Burke might need a closet to stock his treasure trove of national awards. Throw in NCAA Tournament standouts Mitch McGary and Luke Hancock, and the talent pool starts to overflow. And that's without mentioning injured Louisville guard Kevin Ware, whose seated courtside presence filled every dead space on the CBS telecast of Saturday's national semifinals.
"I think you got a lot of great players on that court," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Sunday. "You don't know which ones are going to step up. … A lot of teams, when you watch them, you get nervous a little bit because they do so many things well. You have fun watching Michigan play basketball. The way they pass, cut, shoot, it's a John Beilein team. They're fun to watch. As a coach going to play them, I really enjoy watching them on film."
Then there's Pitino himself, whose hourlong media session Sunday contained a story about how he nearly became Michigan's coach, passing references to two movies and several cracks at smiling center Gorgiu Dieng, sitting three seats to the left. In the past 72 hours, Pitino secured a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction, a horse that qualified for the Kentucky Derby and a third appearance in the national title game.
Still, Pitino talked about how he has tried to teach himself humility, a trait absent during his days as coach at Kentucky and with the Celtics.
"He's changed," said Michigan's Beilein, who's in his 21st year as a head coach. "Good coaches do. Actually faced his team at Kentucky, the (1996) championship team when I was at Canisius. Faced him three times at West Virginia with two overtime losses and a win. He continues to change. That's what I'm trying to measure right now … what he's doing the best right now. And he does everything well."
Among the things Pitino and Beilein did well Saturday was getting the most out of their reserves when their stars had off nights. Louisville starting point guard Peyton Siva and Burke disappeared in the semifinals, shooting a combined 2-for-17. In Siva's wake arose walk-on Tim Henderson, who had three points in Big East games this season but sank two clutch corner 3-pointers. Burke's bad night was somewhat negated by the sudden celebrity of Spike Albrecht, who in four minutes hit two long 3s.
Before bringing his unlimited range to Michigan, Albrecht of Crown Point, Ind., was scoffed at by a TSA officer at a Connecticut airport when he mentioned his future scholarship gig.
"It's that mystery of the young kid, the altar boy, the choir boy like Spike, the 18-year-old kid that hasn't played well coming in and making big baskets that makes this game so great," Beilein said. "It's incredible what the little guy has meant to college basketball, how it keeps being so exciting."