Originally Published: April 6, 2013

Michigan, Louisville earn a chance to be great

By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Goldencents, a horse partially owned by Rick Pitino, won the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, earning a spot in the Kentucky Derby field.

The next race, inconsequential to all but the seasoned bettors, was won by a horse named Points Offthebench.

Still think destiny hasn't hitched its wagon to this season?

No, there is something going on here, something part mystical, part basketball. Otherwise, how to explain it all?

How to explain a national championship game pitting one team that has now survived a gruesome injury to a teammate in one weekend and a lousy game from itself in the next against an opponent that pulled off one epic comeback only to almost be done in by an epic collapse?

How to explain two star guards combining to shoot 2-for-17, including a 1-for-8 effort from the (nearly) consensus national player of the year, and still winning?

Michigan celebrates
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallSaturday's game provided some rare postseason drama for Michigan.

And how, most of all, to explain this: Michigan and Louisville, two teams with rock-solid starting fives, combining for 55 Points … Offthebench?

"Only great teams win that game,'' Louisville's Chane Behanan said of his team's victory, but could very well sum up the Wolverines too. "Only great teams come from down six points with five or six minutes left and win.''

Destined teams often take on an air of greatness as the trophy presentation nears.

Great teams also start to bask in an aura of destiny.

The national championship game between Louisville, 72-68 rally winners against Wichita State, and Michigan, 61-56 survivors over Syracuse, is exactly that sort of matchup, a meeting of the illogical and the logical to culminate a season that has been plenty of both.

Of course, basketball people don't like the idea of otherworld influences. That would require they cede control, and in a world of film sessions and scouting and stat metrics, control is not easily given away.

So they prefer to find some order in the chaos, an explanation for the unexplainable.

Last week, I spoke to John Chaney about the Syracuse zone, but as the ex-Temple coach likes to do, he strayed off topic to talk about the game in general.

And the wise old Owl dropped a pearl of wisdom that was almost exquisite in its simplicity.

"Great players can always stop great players,'' he said. "Great teams find a way to win anyway.''

That's exactly the case with Louisville and Michigan. Dusted by pixie dust perhaps, they are by no means lucky winners.

From Jan. 19 to Feb. 9, Louisville played seven games. They lost four of them -- three by a combined seven points, one in five overtimes.

The Cardinals were Team Implosion, a squad you loved until the final two minutes and then averted your eyes to see how it could all go wrong.

Yet here of all places -- on the literal biggest stage of the season, with the pressure of the overall No. 1 seed only quadrupled thanks to the attention afforded the injured Kevin Ware -- was that same roster, sans Ware, down six late in the second half, Wichita State ho-humming its way through the Cards' pressure defense with an almost 'that's all you got?'' shrug, and they're cool as can be.

"There's no panic,'' UL assistant coach Wyking Jones said. "They know they're going to come back because they've done it before.''

To build a champion, you've got to compile experiences, and this Louisville team has a notebook full. They've gone through the routine (a gutsy win at Syracuse in the regular season); the bizarre (a blowout loss to Villanova), the impossible (the five-OT loss to Notre Dame) and the awful (Ware's injury).

It's all combined in their collective consciences almost like muscle memory. At one point, Ware crutched his way into the huddle, but the Cardinals didn't need any inspiring. They were fine on their own.

Luke Hancock
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsLouisville players celebrated after surviving Wichita State's upset bid on Saturday.

"We just knew we had to stick together,'' Peyton Siva said. "Coach P told us we had to continue to go out there and have fun. We're going to win, we're going to win. That's what he kept repeating to us. We believe it.''

So does Michigan.

The Wolverines spent the better part of this season being told what they were not -- namely, experienced enough to survive essentially anything thrown their way.

Yet here they are, survivors of their own little tailspin, which was more poorly timed than Louisville's. Michigan ended the regular season 5-5, including an inexplicable loss to Penn State, a skid that convinced plenty that, even with trophy collector Trey Burke, the Wolverines were ripe for an early NCAA bounce.

Instead, Michigan all but demolished its opponents, saving its drama for two games -- Kansas and Syracuse.

That was the epic comeback; this was the near meltdown, with the Wolverines blowing an 11-point lead, missing free throws and yet somehow inexplicably emerging with the W.

"It's surreal -- all that hard work paying off throughout the season,'' Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. said. "We had our ups and downs going into the late second half of the season. This team stuck together and bonded.''

Which is all well and good: the logical notion of hard work and pluck, but you can't discount when things just sort of … happen.

Like, for example, walk-on Tim Henderson draining back-to-back 3-pointers to rally the Cardinals -- this after hitting exactly one shot, in garbage time against Duke, since January.

"The players said they were surprised; they were being very kind,'' Pitino said. "I was shocked. Not shocked that he made them, just that he had the gumption to take them, then take it again.''

Or like Caris LeVert, averaging 2.2 points per game, outscoring Burke, eight to seven.

"You never know who the outlier is going to be; you never know who is going to come and get it done,'' Michigan coach John Beilein said. "We've been that team all year.''

Both teams have been that team all year, a collaboration of survival, success and supernatural. But the great delineation of greatness and destiny will come on Monday.

"If we don't win on Monday, we're not a great team,'' Louisville's Stephan Van Treese said.

Michigan feels the same.

But only one horse can cross the finish line first.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball