ATLANTA — Fifteen minutes, approximately, of fame. The only thing that kept Michael Joseph Albrecht off David Letterman’s couch was basketball’s 40-minute time requirement.
He’s a freshman, a small one, as elfin and innocent and deadly as Scott Brooks used to be for UC Irvine. At least Albrecht was that way in the first half of Monday night’s NCAA championship game, when he delighted a national TV audience and befuddled Louisville with three-pointers, stop-and-go drives, and the feeling that he was operating on a different current.
“I’ve seen him do that in practice,” said Trey Burke, Michigan’s national player of the year, whose two fouls gave Albrecht this opportunity to win Basketball Idol.
Yet Albrecht’s solitary dance lasted just a little bit too long. At the end of the first half, Louisville cut Michigan’s 12-point lead to one, thanks to its own holstered bullet, a vagabond named Luke Hancock, who hit all four three-point attempts.
Albrecht was getting trapped. He finally missed a shot. He came back in the second half, but his golden ticket had expired. Hancock, meanwhile, just kept on riding, and at the end he was the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, and the Cardinals had won the national championship, 82-76, in a particularly amped-up Georgia Dome.
Albrecht is a freshman who had scored 61 points going into the Final Four. But he had not missed a free throw all season before Saturday, and he had bailed out Michigan a time or two with three-pointers, and he was perfect against Syracuse on Saturday night.
He was a star at Crown Point, Ind., and he played on the same AAU team as center Mitch McGary.
“Even though he doesn’t pass the eye test,” Burke said.
“In the early-season practice games,” Coach John Beilein said, “Spike’s team always won.”
But until Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer spotted him, on a tip from a coaching friend, Albrecht was probably headed for Brown, as in Ivy League Brown, where his brother went. There were also feelers from Appalachian State, one of the sweeter ironies, if anyone remembers what that North Carolina mountain school’s football team did to Michigan in the Big House a few years back.
“When I saw this kid I told John (head coach Beilein), that this guy could be a backup point guard for us,” Meyer said. “We have a good relationship, but he still had to go see him play. He came back and said, you’re right.”
The nickname comes from the fact that Albrecht wore his spikes everywhere as a kid, broadly hinted to his folks that he wanted to practice baseball. He has lived the Hoosier team ever since, putting in the hours, figuring out his pace, hoping it would lead to this big house of 74,326.
“It felt a little bit like high school.” Albrecht said. “I knew that Coach doesn’t like to play guys if they have two fouls in the first half. So I felt like I had a chance to play the rest of the half, and I relaxed.”
“The way he was playing,” said Louisville’s Chane Behanan, “I knew we’d come back a lot of times in the past, but this time I wasn’t really sure.”
But sometimes you run into a supporting actor award with a bigger statue. Hancock was able to shoot over Albrecht, able to settle him down and make him play defense. He also got Michigan’s Mitch McGary out of the game with a pump fake that drew a fourth foul, and the Wolverines collapsed from the inside out.
Hancock is as much of an underdog as Albrecht. He is from Roanoke, Va., home of another deadeye shooter named J.J. Redick (Duke), and went to nearby George Mason. When coach Jim Larranaga took the Miami job, Hancock transferred to Louisville, where he really didn’t figure to play all that much even before he busted his shoulder in a pickup game.
But Rick Pitino has built a Hall of Fame coaching career on the 3-pointer, and Hancock hit enough of these to become the first player since 1996 to score 20 points in a title game off the bench. The previous guy was Ron Mercer, for Pitino’s Kentucky team in 1996.
And, like seemingly all the Cardinals, Hancock was being moved by something besides basketball. His father, Bill, is fighting a very serious but undisclosed illness, and made the trip Monday to watch.
“It’s hard to tell you how much that meant to me,” Hancock said, his throat clutching.
That’s on top of Kevin Ware’s smiling presence, eight days after his foot jammed the wrong way onto the hardwood in Indianapolis and shoved a bone through his skin.
A lot of casual fans wrote off Louisville on the night of Feb 9, and the early morning of Feb. 10. That was when the Cardinals lost in five overtimes to Notre Dame. Since then, they hae not lost, and beat eight ranked teams in that 16-game streak.’
“I think this is the best day of Luke’s life,” said teammate Staphan Van Treese.
Obviously. But others will remember the otherworldly gleam of one freshman’s 15 minutes.