ATLANTA — With Monday night's NCAA national championship game between Louisville and Michigan still a few hours away, my friend the Syracuse fan wanted the tournament changed.
"Why does everybody else -- the NBA, pro baseball, hockey -- why do all those sports have best-out-of-something series to decide their titles and college basketball has one loss and you're out?" she asked, still mourning the Orange's semifinal loss to Michigan.
"It's not fair."
She might be right, of course. But as the Cardinals and Wolverines continued their tug-of-war through the early moments of Monday's final half, both teams well aware that one-and-done can just as easily become won-and-done, it also remained clear that this is what separates it, what lifts it atop a pedestal each March, its national appeal undeniable, largely because the underdog need only beat a favored opponent once.
As Dan Fogleberg once sang about Kentucky Derby hopefuls: "It's the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance."
For proof, we give you Monday's first half, the Wolverines reportedly in deep mud right off the bat after their starting point guard Trey Burke -- the national player of the year -- picked up two quick fouls.
Think the Miami Heat facing an elimination game without LeBron James and you have an idea of Burke's worth.
As teammate Nik Stauskas said Sunday, "Trey is such a winner. We were 11 down to Kansas with three minutes left and he told us there was no way we were losing this game, and he was right."
But against the best defensive player in the country, that figured to change, and badly for Michigan.
But Michigan coach John Beilein also said the following Sunday afternoon: "It is that mystery of the young kid, the altar boy, the choir boy like Spike [Albrecht], the 18-year-old kid who hasn't played well coming in, then making big baskets that makes this game so great."
The coach appeared to be speaking of his baby-faced freshman's two huge 3-pointers in the Wolverines' semifinal win over Syracuse the previous night.
Or maybe he knew something bigger. Maybe he knew that Albrecht -- all 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds of him -- was about to put on an extraordinary shooting clinic, hitting all four of his 3-pointers on his way to 17 points before the break. Just call him Altar-Ego boy, channeling his inner Larry Bird.
Yet surprising as it might seem, Albrecht's heroics only guided Michigan to a 38-37 halftime lead because of a similarly stunning performance by Louisville reserve guard Luke Hancock.
Just as he almost single-handedly willed the Cards to victory against Wichita State on Saturday by scoring 20 points off the bench, Hancock went similarly Cardinals Red-hot against Michigan.
He not only matched Albrecht in 3s attempted and made, but he knocked down four of five free throws to help Louisville close the half on a 14-3 run.
And sure enough, the Cardinals' pressure began to wear on Michigan in the final period, just as their Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino always expects that it will.
You just don't take three different schools to the Final Four without knowing a thing about how to win a tournament where one loss counts you out. But heading into Monday he'd won only one, because when one loss is all that's needed to break your heart, the tournament's the real star.
Which is exactly as it should be.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...