University of Michigan sophomore guard Trey Burke and his freshmen teammates have a chance to win the national championship the school’s Fab Five never did.
The Wolverines, the least-experienced of the 68 teams in the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament, meet the top-ranked University of Louisville tonight in the title game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Michigan’s most-recent appearances in the national championship game came in 1992 and 1993, losing when the Fab Five recruiting class of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson were freshmen and sophomores. This year, Burke leads another group of talented underclassmen for the Wolverines, who are 4-point underdogs against Louisville.
“When I came in as a freshman, I didn’t know what my role was going to be,” Burke said yesterday, when he won the Naismith Trophy as college basketball’s national player of the year. “But I was thrown right into the fire. I had an opportunity to learn leadership skills my first year and allowed me to become the leader I am today.”
The Wolverines showed in their Final Four win against Syracuse two days ago that they’re not completely reliant on Burke, who’s averaging 18.5 points and 6.8 assists a game this season.
As the 20-year-old guard was held to a tournament-low seven points on 1-of-8 shooting, freshman forward Mitch McGary had 10 points and 12 rebounds, while Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III -- both sons of former National Basketball Association All-Stars -- combined for 23 points and 12 rebounds.
Hardaway, a junior guard, is the only of Michigan’s top five scorers who isn’t a freshman or sophomore. The team’s average experience is 0.8 years, according to Sports Illustrated. No other team’s roster averaged less than one year’s experience.
In the NCAA tournament, McGary has averaged a team-high 16 points and 11.6 rebounds, while freshmen Robinson, Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht have combined to average 28 points in the Wolverines’ wins over South Dakota State, Virginia Commonwealth, Kansas, Florida and Syracuse.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino credits sixth-year Michigan coach John Beilein with the development of the Wolverines, who in January were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time in 21 years. Michigan (31-7) lost five of its final 10 games to end the regular season before beginning pursuit of its first national title since 1989.
“On paper you would say this is a young basketball team,” Pitino said. “But because he’s done such a great job molding this team, they play like seniors. You don’t see guys pass, catch and shoot like that. This is a remarkable team the way they share, the way they pass. They don’t play like a young basketball team.”
Pitino can become the first coach in college basketball history to win national championships at two different schools tonight, having previously won an NCAA title at Kentucky in 1996. Louisville entered this year’s tournament as the favorite of Las Vegas oddsmakers and was the only No. 1 seed from the four regions to reach the Final Four.
The Cardinals (34-5) are riding a 15-game winning streak and set a school record for victories this season.
They have overcome challenges the past two games, recovering from the broken leg suffered by reserve guard Kevin Ware in the Midwest region final against Duke and rallying from a 12-point second-half deficit for a 72-68 victory against Wichita State two days ago. Ware sat alongside his teammates on the bench during that win, which sent Louisville into the NCAA tournament’s championship game for the first time since 1986, when the school secured its most-recent title.
“We’ve had a great run,” Pitino said. “Now we’re playing for a championship. It’s a lot of fun, and we’re certainly going to enjoy it.”