ATLANTA (AP) — Game on. The national title game has tipped off, with Michigan and AP Player of the Year Trey Burke taking on Louisville and its high-scoring guard, Russ Smith.
The fourth-seeded Wolverines (31-7) are back in the final for the first time in 20 years, when a brash group better known as the Fab Five was the talk of college basketball.
Top-seeded Louisville (34-5) is trying to bring its first title back to the state of Kentucky's "other" school since 1986. Sitting on the bench with the Cardinals is sophomore guard Kevin Ware, the team's inspiration since snapping his tibia in the regional final last weekend.
Cardinals coach Rick Pitino is working the sideline hours after being named to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
Pitino is trying to become the first coach to lead two programs to national championships. He took Kentucky to the title in 1996.
Smith, the Louisville team leader who Pitino has nicknamed "Russdiculous" for some of his wild — and wildly effective — antics on the court, scores 18.9 points a game for the Cardinals during the season but has picked up the scoring in the tournament, averaging 25 in the five Louisville wins.
The Cardinals are playing without their main reserve, Ware, who broke his leg in the regional final against Duke. Needing a pickup without Ware, reserve swingman Luke Hancock scored 20 points in the 72-68 win over Wichita State. And rarely used walk-on Tim Henderson made two key 3-pointers during the comeback.
"The other night, we were not going to play in the championship game unless a walk-on steps up and makes a play to give us momentum," Pitino said in a pregame interview.
Chris Webber, who infamously called a timeout the Wolverines didn't have at the end of Michigan's 77-71 loss to North Carolina in the 1993 final, has had very little to do with his alma mater in recent years, but was on hand at the Georgia Dome to watch Monday's game.
In the program's first Final Four game since then, Michigan topped Syracuse 61-56 on Saturday despite an off night from Burke, who finished with only seven points on 1-for-8 shooting.
Burke, a sophomore, seriously considered leaving for the NBA after last season but decided he had unfinished business left in Ann Arbor. He picked up the AP Player of the Year award, among others, and is now one victory away from the ultimate prize in college hoops.
Before leaving the locker room, Michigan coach John Beilein gave his team a pep talk: "You play with poise, play with confidence, you do all those things today and we're going to have one heck of a celebration," he said.
Monday night's game is the final act in what has been an ugly season overall in college hoops, with scoring at its lowest (67.49 points per team) since 1951-52 and shooting at its worst (43.3 percent) since 1964-65. The 131.2-points-per-game average during March Madness is the lowest since the 3-point line was brought to the game in 1987.