A is for Atlanta, which is hosting the Final Four for the fourth time. Marquette beat North Carolina for the national title in 1977, Maryland outclassed Indiana in 2002 and Florida defended its title against Ohio State in 2007.
B is for bloodlines, something Michigan has in abundance. Tim Hardway Jr. is the son of ex-NBA guard Tim Hardaway, Glenn Robinson III is the son of ex-Purdue star Glenn Robinson and Jon Horford is the son of ex-NBA player Tito Horford. All three Wolverines have thrived despite following in the footsteps of their father.
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C is for cutting down the nets, which Louisville will finally do if it wins Monday night's title game. The Cardinals have opted not to trim down the nets after winning the Big East tournament and advancing to the Final Four, a symbolic gesture meant to demonstrate they believe there is only one set of nets worth snipping.
D is for depth, which Louisville lacks at guard with Kevin Ware injured. Either Peyton Siva and Russ Smith are going to need to avoid foul trouble Monday night, or Louisville will have to get contributions from walk-on Tim Henderson for a second straight game.
E is for the early start John Beilein got scouting Louisville on Sunday morning. "I started at 5:45 this morning," Beilein said. "I didn't think they were fun because they give you so many looks. With a one-day prep, it's almost impossible to get ready for all of those things." Pitino had earlier called watching Michigan film "fun" because of the way the Wolverines cut, pass and shoot. As a coach going to play them, I really enjoy watching them on film," he said.
F is for the friendship between former prep school teammates Nik Stauskas and Russ Smith. They exchange texts frequently throughout the season, most recently after Stauskas sank six threes against Florida. "He texted me telling me I had a good game," Stauskas said. "I told him thanks and we'd see him in the finals."
G is for the defensive gauntlet Michigan has endured to reach the title game. From VCU's swarming full-court press, to Syracuse's long, active two-three zone, to the more traditional defenses employed by Kansas and Florida, the Wolverines' vaunted offense has been tested throughout the NCAA tournament. Their final exam may be the toughest challenge yet though because Louisville can force turnovers with its pressure but also can string together stops in the half court.
H is for humility, which Rick Pitino says is the biggest difference between his personality now and the last time he reached the national title game when he coached at Kentucky. An ineffective stint with the Boston Celtics contributed to that, as have the well-publicized mistakes he made in his personal life. "If I had one regret in life, it wouldn't be what you think, it's that I wasn't more humble at an earlier age," Pitino said. "And I preach to any young coach that comes along. I tell my son all the time, Don't make the same mistakes when I was your age."
I is for the inspiration Louisville players and coaches have drawn from Ware, whose brave response to his broken leg has turned him into a mini-celebrity. He has appeared on the David Letterman show this week, fielded calls and tweets from numerous NBA stars and received more airtime during the CBS broadcast Saturday night than any other player on the floor.
J is for Jordan Morgan, Michigan's top big man before Mitch McGary wrested away the spot in the starting lineup entering the NCAA tournament. Morgan's minutes have diminished, but he came up big Saturday, taking a game-saving charge on Brandon Triche in the final seconds of the Wolverines' victory over Syracuse. "It's been tough on him at times," Beilein said. "He's a starter, and he had a bad injury that he didn't come back from. He's getting closer to it. In the meantime, all of a sudden Wally Pipp takes a day off and Lou Gehrig comes in."
K is for Kansas, which has to be kicking itself now that Michigan is playing for a championship. The Jayhawks had the Wolverines beaten in the Sweet 16 when they led by 10 points with the ball and only two and a half minutes remaining in regulation, but they frittered that away in a hail of turnovers and blown defensive assignments. Trey Burke forced overtime with a game-tying 3-pointer, enabling Michigan to advance.
L is for the line Las Vegas oddsmakers have set for the game favoring Louisville by four points. The Cardinals have yet to be an underdog in the NCAA tournament.
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M is for McGary, the breakout star of the NCAA tournament and a player that Pitino on Sunday compared to Golden State Warriors forward David Lee. McGary, who forced his way into Michigan's starting lineup in the postseason, now has three double-doubles in five NCAA tournament games, one more than he had all season prior to the start of March Madness. "He's playing better basketball than anyone in this tournament right now," Louisville center Gorgui Dieng said.
N is for nothing, which is what Russ Smith said he learned from watching Syracuse's long, active 2-3 zone frustrate Michigan's three starting guards into poor shooting nights on Saturday. "If I grow to 6-7 and Peyton were 6-5 and we played a 2-3 zone ..." Smith said, voice trailing off. "That zone bothers a lot of people, so there's no takeaway from that game."
O is for offense, and two good ones will be on display in the title game. Louisville had scored at least 77 points in every NCAA tournament game until Wichita State held the Cardinals to 72 on Saturday. Michigan had eclipsed 70 in every game before its grind-it-out win against defensive-oriented Syracuse that same night. Both teams expect the pace to be fast Monday since both are comfortable running.
P is for point guards, both of whom struggled in the national semifinals and will be hoping for bounce-back performances on Monday night. Peyton Siva missed 8 of 9 shots and failed to knock down the outside shots that were available to him. Trey Burke missed 7 of 8 shots and did not make the same impact offensively that he had throughout the NCAA tournament.
Q is for quotable, an accurate description for Pitino these days. When a reporter asked Pitino about his "four-year journey" with Gorgui Dieng, Pitino corrected the error and poked fun at the NBA Draft-bound junior all in one response. "Gorgui is a three-year [player]," Pitino said. "But if he plays like last night, it will be four years."
R is for Russdiculous, the player who may turn every hair on Pitino's head gray with his shot selection and decision making yet capture the NCAA tournament's most outstanding player award. Smith has been more consistent this season as a starter than he was coming off the bench a year ago, but Siva downplayed the notion that his game has dramatically changed. "Russ has been out of control for both years," he said with a smile. "But he's playing at a higher level and the shots are falling. He takes some of the craziest shots I've ever seen, but they go in."
S is for Stauskas, the Michigan sharp shooter who had an off night against Syracuse in the Final Four but torched Florida for six 3-pointers in the Elite Eight. Stauskas honed his skills shooting with his dad in his backyard, the videos of which have become YouTube sensations. In one, Stauskas sinks 45 of 50 threes. In another, he buries 102 threes in five minutes.
T is for thirteen, the number of years that have elapsed since Michigan State delivered the Big Ten's last national championship. Michigan can end that drought with a victory Monday night, though conference pride is certainly not the primary motivation for the Wolverines. "We're just trying to win for the University of Michigan," freshman Glenn Robinson III said. "At the same time, I do know that the Big Ten is backing us up and hoping we do accomplish this."
U is for under-recruited, an apt description for Michigan reserve guard Spike Albrecht. The freshman challenges Trey Burke in practice, takes pressure off him by bringing the ball up in games and provides steady defense and consistent outside shooting while on the floor. "People were going to think I'm crazy for taking this young man," Beilein said Sunday. "At the same time we said this is exactly what we need in today's age, a four‑year player that's just going to work his tail off."
V is for VCU, the last team to try to beat Michigan with full-court pressure. An array of Wolverines' ball handlers made Havoc look helpless en route to a 78-53 round of 32 rout, but Louisville's defense is different than VCU's. Not only do the Cardinals trap and press differently, they're far better falling back into half-court defense than the Rams are. "I think we rely on our half-court defense more than VCU does," Peyton Siva said. "We have Gorgui Dieng back there, and it allows us to clean up a lot of things."
W is for Pitino's wife Joanne, who is the biggest reason her husband is the coach at Louisville now rather than the coach at Michigan. Pitino had an agreement in place to become Michigan's next coach in 2001, but his wife challenged him to return to the state of Kentucky and take the Louisville job even though it was sure to inspire anger from Wildcats fans. "I said, 'Think about it. There's half a million Kentucky fans in our town,'" Pitino recalled. "She said, 'I don't care, your family is going to be happy.'"
X is for the X-factors on both rosters. Stauskas has been hit and miss with his outside shooting this March, but when he's on, Michigan is even more potent offensively. And if sixth man Luke Hancock can provide perimeter shooting for Louisville the way he did Saturday, it adds an extra dimension for the Cardinals.
Y is for Youth, something Michigan has in abundance. With three freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup and two other freshmen in the rotation off the bench, the Wolverines are the youngest team in the nation. Couple that with Kentucky's freshman-laden national title team a year ago, and that's further proof talent trumps experience in the championship chase.
Z is for zero, which is about how confident I am in my prediction for the winner of this game. Very tentative nod to Louisville, 74-69, because I think Dieng's length may bother McGary and I suspect the Cardinals' guards will be able to get into the lane more effectively against Michigan than they did against Wichita State. Michigan is very capable of beating the press without turning the ball over and getting the Louisville guards into foul trouble, so it will not be a surprise to see the Wolverines hoist the national title trophy either.
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