Player of the Year Trey Burke and the Michigan Wolverines take on Louisville tonight for the men's national title.
ATLANTA — The loss of Kevin Ware did not seem to limit the Louisville bench in the Final Four.
Whether it plays a role in tonight’s national title game remains to be seen.
Luke Hancock and the reserves will try to step up again when the Cardinals take on Michigan in the NCAA National Championship game tonight and “Win it for Ware” — the slogan the team has adopted since the Rockdale native suffered a gruesome season-ending leg injury in the Elite 8.
“When something like that happens, it’s really devastating emotionally,” Louisville star Russ Smith told the Washington Post of Ware, who traveled with the team to his hometown of Atlanta and watched the Cardinals rally to beat Wichita State on Saturday night as Ware looked on from crutches on the sidelines. “When that happens, it really bothers you physically and mentally. I think the guys did a great job of stepping up and blocking out all the negativity and looking at the positive side that Ware’s OK.”
Ware was glad he could be on hand, and he’ll be there again tonight — dressed in his No. 5 jersey to lend whatever support he can.
“I knew I was going to wear my jersey just to show them I was there for them,” Ware said.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, knocked off another Big East school, Syracuse, in the national semifinals and have the athletes to get up and down with Louisville as well as a point guard in Trey Burke — the NCAA Player of the Year — that can dribble through the press.
Michigan has been a more well-rounded team in the NCAA Tournament because of the emergence of Mitch McGary, who did not even join the starting lineup full time until the beginning of the Tournament. The freshman forward will lock up with Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan along the frontline in today’s championship game. Dieng struggled with foul trouble in the Final Four victory against Wichita State, but Hancock jumped into the extra minutes vacated by Ware and his foul-prone teammates and responded with 20 points.
“Luke is tremendous,” Smith said of Hancock, who has 20 points off the bench Saturday. “If you saw him in practice, you wouldn’t be surprised by his performance. He puts on a show every day in practice. His hard work paid off, especially on the biggest stage. I’m so happy he had the game of his life.”
ABOUT MICHIGAN (31-7): McGary showed off his passing ability to help the Wolverines break through Syracuse’s press in the first half Saturday finished with a season-high six assists to go along with 10 points and 12 rebounds. National Player of the Year Trey Burke struggled to 1-of-8 from the field against the Orange, but will be the key to keeping up with Russ Smith and Peyton Siva on both ends while setting up Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III. The Wolverines like to get out and run with Burke setting the pace and Hardaway and Robinson on the wings. Freshman guard Nik Stauskas had a tough semifinal but can stretch the defense with his shooting ability like he did while going 6-for-6 from beyond the arc against Florida in the Elite Eight. Michigan is in the National Championship for the first time since the Fab Five made its second trip in 1993 and is the youngest team in the field of 68, with Robinson III, McGary and Stauskas all starting as freshman.
ABOUT LOUISVILLE (34-5): The Cardinals have won 15 straight games going back to the regular season and have shown off their ability to win in different styles during the NCAA Tournament. After running Duke off the floor in the second half of the Elite Eight, Wichita State forced Louisville to slow the pace and would not turn the ball over, leaving the Cardinals to play more of a half court game. That turned out to be the ideal way to Hancock more involved, and the junior swingman helped Louisville overcome a 12-point second-half deficit. Of course, Smith added 21 points as well and will be a key to keeping Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson from slashing to the hole. Smith has scored at least 20 points in each of the five NCAA Tournament games and combines with Siva to form one of the fastest backcourts in college basketball and a tandem that jumps passing lanes and piles up steals defensively.
Louisville is making its first trip to the National Championship Game since winning the title in 1986, and coach Rick Pitino will be trying to win championships with two different schools (Kentucky 1996).
McGary is averaging 16 points on 69.8 percent shooting and 11.6 rebounds in the Tournament.
The Cardinals bench collected 34 points Saturday.