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ATLANTA -- Trey Burke versus Peyton Siva. Offensive efficiency versus defensive superlatives. Grinder coach opposite Hall of Famer.
Those are the easy and obvious storylines for the national championship game between Michigan and Louisville, but the real narrative goes a lot deeper.
The culmination of this season is the end result of a much steeper climb for both teams, out of the morass of NCAA shame and out of the shadow of successful rivals.
National championships have the power to do a lot of things -- turn ordinary players into stars and turn coaches into legends.
But the redemptive powers of lofting that trophy cannot be overlooked. It was on hand when Jim Calhoun hoisted his in 2011 in the midst of an NCAA investigation, and again in 2012 when Kentucky finally returned to the top of what it considers its fiefdom after 16 long years.
Monday's title game is about not just one but two hungry programs desperate to cling to the NCAA hardware and its restorative antidote.
|Does John Beilein's Michigan team have one more net to cut down?|
Maybe not since 2006 -- when UCLA, title-less for 15 years, and Florida, its trophy case empty forever, met in the final -- have two teams waited longer for their moment.
It's been 20 years since the Wolverines played for a national title (later vacated), 24 since they won one. Louisville's drought extends even further, all the way back to 1986.
"We've all thought about that," said Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. "I'd be lying if I didn't say that."
He also wouldn't be alone.
The two fan bases, as fierce and passionate for their schools as any in the country, are equally starved and anxious, evidenced by their numbers here. Even before Saturday's national semifinals, this city was dominated by three colors -- red, then maize and blue.
But it is not just the long wait. It's what has transpired in between.
It wouldn't be overstating it to say that Michigan and Louisville spent the better part of the 1990s either under NCAA investigation or probation.
For the Wolverines, the Ed Martin scandal cost the university its coach, its 1993 national runner-up run, its dignity and its success. After the house was cleaned and coach Steve Fisher was fired, Michigan waited 11 long years and three coaches to even make it back to the NCAA tournament, with Brian Ellerbe and Tommy Amaker coming up empty before John Beilein took over.
Louisville escaped with far less penalty but no less pain, its program essentially on an extended probation for two separate sets of NCAA violations.
The Cardinals managed to stay relevant in between, but relevant is a bit of an objective term. Louisville managed to go back to the NCAA tournament in 1999 and 2000, in the years right after the second wave of probation, but didn't win a game until 2003, after Rick Pitino was hired.
Adding insult to both teams' injuries is what happened with their rivals. While Michigan suffered, Michigan State won a national championship and went to four more Final Fours and Ohio State made its way into the final weekend three times.
"This program hasn't been this far in two decades," Burke said. "So just to be back in this situation definitely means the world to the alumni, and it means the world to us."
Then, of course, is the fire pit known as the commonwealth of Kentucky, where basketball success is the only barometer worth measuring. Since Louisville's last championship, Kentucky has won three.
|Rick Pitino knows how a title would resonate in the state of Kentucky.|
Pitino brushed off any notion that this game had anything to do with the Wildcats.
His players know better.
"It would get a little bit of the weight off of our shoulders," Siva said. "Especially with all the Kentucky people breathing down our necks all the time."
Pitino perhaps knows better about all of this than anyone at the Final Four. He pulled Kentucky out of its muck and mire, lifting the Wildcats from their own embarrassing sanctions and ultimately to a national title.
Last weekend, before the Cardinals faced Duke, Pitino was pulled down memory lane, asked to reflect on the Wildcats' 1992 date with the Blue Devils. The questions were about the most iconic game in NCAA history, but in the midst of it, he redirected the interview to the powers of that almost-win.
"When we got back, four of those guys had their names retired to the rafters the day after the game, which was incredible when you think about it because Kentucky always puts All-Americans up there," Pitino said. "They were all put up there because they all stayed. They didn't leave. Scandal hit Kentucky, and they stayed."
Yet that group of Wildcats -- "The Unforgettables," as they always will be known in the commonwealth -- lost, and it was only the Elite Eight.
Not a win. Not the national championship.
Imagine, then, what a victory on Monday could do for Michigan or Louisville, what that moment could feel like when one of these teams wins it all.
Success and restoration all embodied in one simple trophy.