ATLANTA – History is meant to be judged, and yet each classic that has been a national championship game of the NCAA Tournament has owned a unique significance.
Michigan State-Indiana State began the Magic-Bird rivalry. Texas Western-Kentucky helped shatter racial barriers. Villanova-Georgetown and North Carolina State-Houston championed the underdog. And on and on.
There was another Monday evening.
Louisville-Michigan gave us this hope: Maybe offense isn’t dead, after all.
We just witnessed the worst offensive season in 60 years.
We just saw the best championship game in decades.
A season defined by low-scoring games, sluggish execution and forgettable officiating concluded with Louisville standing atop the college game after an 82-76 victory before a finals record 74,326 at the Georgia Dome.
The questionable calls continued, which means at least those blowing whistles remained consistently bad to the end. But when you begin to dissect why Rick Pitino is now the only coach in college history to win championships at two schools, quickness and toughness wins out.
There were pros everywhere on the court, some wearing white and others yellow. Louisville has the nation’s two quickest guards in Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, and a Final Four Most Outstanding Player in reserve Luke Hancock (22 points), who would start on any other team nationally.
On a night when the Fab Five watched and cheered the program they helped define a generation 20 years ago, the Wolverines had four freshmen combine to score 38 points and, at one point, 26 straight.
One who isn’t a pro, a kid named Spike Albrecht, was the nation’s 579th-ranked player as a senior at Northfield Mount Hermon (Mass.). His only other scholarship offer was to Appalachian State, and yet for a while here he flirted with folk-like status.
Spike can’t guard his shadow and entered averaging just 1.2 points and 7.1 minutes. But he had 17 in 16 first-half minutes, obviously not a premier concern of Louisville’s scouting report.
Yep. It was that memorable a final.
“I have not seen that type of quickness anywhere, and we have played some pretty good teams,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Their quickness got to us a little in the end.”
So did Louisville’s desire.
The Cardinals had 11 offensive rebounds in the second half, led by a beast in forward Chane Behanan (15 points, 12 rebounds). They just pounded the glass, and Siva (18 points, five assists) just abused the Wolverines off the dribble. They couldn’t guard him.
Michigan will look at several things — how Beilein kept star guard Trey Burke on the bench with two fouls as a 12-point lead in the first half was cut to one by intermission; how what appeared to be a terrible foul call on a Burke block of a Siva shot allowed the Cardinals to go up five with 5:09 remaining; not fouling immediately while down four with 52 seconds left; the second-half foul trouble that found forward Mitch McGary — and wonder what might have been.
But the team cutting down nets deserved every snip. Louisville was better in a game in which both teams were terrific, combining to make 16 of 34 3-pointers and to shoot 49 percent.
“You know, a lot of times in the national championship, the game isn’t pretty,” Pitino said. “This was a great game. It was as good as it gets. Our team is the most together, hard-nosed team I’ve had. We set demanding goals, and they accomplished everything we put out there. I am amazed as a coach.”
It is a championship that validates his decision in 2001, after resigning as coach of the Boston Celtics, to take the Louisville job over another college position he had already accepted.
Pitino was against returning to the state of Kentucky, where he had led the Wildcats to a national championship, against turning red when he had been such an enormous part of the state’s blue faithful.
His wife, however, wanted to return to a place where her family had been its happiest during that eight-year period.
She was adamant it could be done.
“I use an expression a lot from a book that goes, ‘I’d rather live one day as a lion than a thousand as a lamb,’ ” Pitino said. “My wife was holding the book when I told her, ‘You don’t understand. The Kentucky coach can’t coach Louisville.’ She said it was just one game a year, that we only had to play a road game there every other year. I told her our lives would be miserable. She said, ‘You know what? You’re a (bleeping) lamb,’ and then walked downstairs.”
Pitino then picked up the telephone to inform the athletic director at the school he had accepted a coaching job from earlier that week that he had changed his mind.
The school: Michigan.
Just another classic note from a classic final.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.