For the Michigan Wolverines and Louisville Cardinals, a journey many months in the making ends Monday night in Atlanta (game time at 9:23 p.m. ET).
And my what a journey it's been.
In the illustrated timeline ahead we follow Louisville and Michigan from the bitter disappointment that capped last season to the grand expectations that greeted this one, and on through the many moods of a madcap college basketball season that left all of us agape.
For one, the odyssey will end in ultimate triumph. For both, it's been a season worth savoring.
The 2011-12 season was a banner year for the Michigan Wolverines basketball program, right up until the postseason started.
In John Beilein's fifth year as head coach, the program won 24 games for the first time since 1997-98 and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
All those good vibrations, however, weren't substance enough to overcome D.J. Cooper and the 13th-seeded Ohio Bobcats in the round of 64.
The Wolverines fell behind by 10 early and ultimately lost 65-60.
Like the Wolverines, Louisville entered the 2012 NCAA tournament seeded fourth.
Unlike Michigan, the Cardinals survived a handful of early scares—including back-to-back single-digit affairs on the opening weekend—to advance out of their region and on to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Once there, Louisville found itself matched against rival Kentucky, the tournament's top overall seed. The underdog Cardinals dominated the offensive glass and gave John Calipari's Wildcats a scare before falling 69-61.
Kentucky would go on to win its eighth national championship two nights later.
Though he came to Ann Arbor with relatively little fanfare, Trey Burke averaged 14.8 points per contest during the 2011-12 season and brought home Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.
After briefly exploring his professional prospects, the Columbus, Ohio, native announced plans to return to Michigan for his sophomore season.
On June 1, 2012, Caris Levert of Ohio became the fifth and final member of Michigan's 2012 freshman recruiting class, It was a highly touted group that also included backup guard Spike Albrecht, small forward Glenn Robinson III, guard Nik Stauskas and power forward Mitch McGary.
All five freshman have seen regular minutes for the Wolverines this year, and the latter three are expected to start for John Beilein's team on Monday.
On the season, Michigan ranked 342nd out of 347 Division I teams in average experience (per KenPom, subscription required).
Without many holes to fill, Louisville had a quiet 2011-12 recruiting season. But when former Virginia Tech signee Montrezl Harrell became available late, Rick Pitino made his move.
The North Carolina native signed with the Cardinals in early June and quickly became a key member of Louisville's loaded second unit. Harrell's addition proved even more important when top recruit Terry Rozier was ruled academically ineligible.
Ranked second and fifth, respectively, in the preseason AP poll, Louisville and Michigan entered the 2012-13 season facing historic expectations.
It was the Wolverines' first preseason Top Five ranking since 1993 and the Cardinals' first Top Two preseason nod since 1986.
As expected, both title-game participants opened the season with wins.
Michigan notched a November 9 victory over Division II foe Slippery Rock University, 100-62. Louisville followed up two days later with a 79-51 win against Manhattan.
Cardinals center Gorgui Dieng broke his wrist attempting to draw a charge during the first half of Louisville's 84-61 win over Missouri in the semifinal of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
The injury forced Dieng to miss seven games, including a tournament final loss to Duke the next day. The setback against the Blue Devils was Louisville's only defeat during nonconference play.
The Wolverines started hot, rattling off 13 consecutive wins in nonconference play and 16 straight overall.
Michigan's early-season spurt included home victories over North Carolina State, Arkansas and Iowa, as well as neutral-court W's against Pittsburgh, Kansas State and West Virginia.
With center Gorgui Dieng in the lineup for the first time since late November, Louisville avenged its Final Four loss from a year ago by beating rival Kentucky 80-77 at home.
Star guard Russ Smith scored 21 points for the Cardinals, and sophomore Chane Behanan added a late steal and dunk to help seal the win.
With the victory, Louisville finished its nonconference slate 12-1.
Needing a win to secure its first AP No. 1 ranking in over two decades, Michigan fell 56-53 at rival Ohio State.
The Wolverines overcame a massive first-half deficit to draw within two, but point guard Trey Burke's three-point attempt with 14 seconds left rattled in and out, sending Michigan to its first loss on the young season.
Thanks to Michigan's loss and a 3-0 start in Big East play, Louisville became the third team (after Indiana and Duke) to earn the AP's No. 1 ranking.
Rick Pitino's Cardinals held the top spot for exactly one week before ceding it back to prior No. 1 Duke. Louisville would climb no higher than No. 2 the rest of the season.
After winning its first game as the AP No. 1, Louisville lost at home against Syracuse before dropping consecutive road contests at Villanova and Georgetown. All three games were decided by single digits.
The three-game losing streak was Louisville's first since 2010 and dropped the Cardinals to No. 12 in the AP poll.
After nearly securing the top spot two weeks prior, Michigan rose to No. 1 in the nation for the first time since 1992.
The Wolverines' time as the AP No. 1 ended one week later, but nevertheless marked an important moment in the program's national re-emergence.
In perhaps the single most anticipated regular-season matchup of the 2012-13 season, No. 1 Michigan lost on the road to No. 3 Indiana, 81-73.
Even in defeat, the Wolverines proved they belonged among the nation's elite, clawing back from an early deficit to very nearly knock off the Hoosiers in Bloomington. Trey Burke scored 25 points in the loss.
On February 9, Louisville and Notre Dame played the longest regular-season game in Big East history, with the Fighting Irish prevailing 104-101 in five overtimes.
Louisville held a sizable lead late in regulation and multiple last-shot possessions during the overtime period, but it could never quite bury an inspired Notre Dame team.
The decision dropped the Cardinals to 19-5 on the season and 7-4 in Big East play. They have not lost since.
Wisconsin's Ben Brust sank a half-court buzzer-beater against Michigan on February 9 to force overtime. The Badgers then outscored John Beilein's team 5-2 in the extra session to secure a miraculous 65-62 win.
Three nights later, the Wolverines fell 75-52 at Michigan State, their only double-digit loss on the season.
In one of the college basketball season's most stunning decisions, Michigan let a 13-point second-half lead slip away against hapless Penn State, losing 84-78 in Happy Valley.
The win was Penn State's first during the conference season. The Wolverines, meanwhile, lost their fourth game in the month of February.
Louisville celebrated senior day in style, avenging an earlier loss to Notre Dame with a spirited 73-57 win and earning a share of the Big East regular-season crown.
Junior center Gorgui Dieng—a presumptive NBA draft pick—was incorporated into the pregame festivities and led all scorers with 20. The win was Louisville's seventh in a row.
After bounce-back wins over Purdue and Michigan State—the latter in dramatic fashion—Michigan closed out its regular season with a rematch against Indiana.
A win would've given the Wolverines a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, but Jordan Morgan's last-second tip-in attempt rolled off the rim, sending Michigan to a 72-71 loss and relegating John Beilein's club to fifth place in the conference standings.
While Indiana celebrated its first outright Big Ten title since 1993, Michigan dropped to 10th in the AP poll, its lowest ranking of the season.
Louisville overcame a 16-point deficit in the Big East title game against Syracuse to win its second consecutive conference tournament championship. The Cardinals outscored the Orange 56-26 in the second half behind 20 points from Montrezl Harrell.
After the game, senior point guard Peyton Siva became just the second player ever to earn Big East tournament Most Outstanding Player honors two years in a row.
On March 17, the NCAA selection committee announced the draw for the 2013 men's basketball championship.
Louisville was named the tournament's top overall seed and placed in the Midwest bracket alongside Duke, Michigan State and St. Louis.
Due to its late-season swoon, Michigan fell to the No. 4 line in the South Region.
Many expected the fifth-seeded VCU Rams to be Michigan's first major test of the tournament. The Wolverines, apparently, thought otherwise.
U-M smashed Shaka Smart's team 78-53 in the round of 32 behind 21 points from freshman forward Mitch McGary. With the win, Michigan advanced to its first Sweet 16 since 1994.
After smothering North Carolina A&T in an opening-round win, Louisville turned up the pressure on third-round foe Colorado State and waltzed away with an 82-56 win.
Russ Smith scored 27 points and helped the Cardinals force 20 turnovers against the overmatched Rams.
Pitted against top-seeded Kansas in the Sweet 16, Michigan roared back from a late 10-point deficit and forced overtime thanks to a 30-foot three-pointer by star guard Trey Burke in the closing seconds.
Burke then scored Michigan's first five points in the extra session, guiding the Wolverines to an 87-85 upset victory.
Two nights later, the Wolverines won the South Region with a 79-59 thrashing of third-seeded Florida.
Louisville guard Kevin Ware suffered one of the most gruesome live-game injuries in sports history during the Cardinals' Elite Eight showdown against Duke, shattering his right leg after an attempted close out late in the first half.
The injury left Ware's teammates rattled, but Louisville recovered to outscore Duke 50-31 in the second half and punch its return ticket to the NCAA Final Four.
Filling in for the injured Kevin Ware, reserve guard Luke Hancock scored 20 points to help the Cardinals overcome a 12-point second-half deficit against upset-minded Wichita State in the national semifinal.
Hancock scored 14 of his 20 during the second half of Louisville's 72-68 win.
Forward Mitch McGary was again brilliant for Michigan, as John Beilein's crew held off hard-charging Syracuse in a wild national semifinal game.
The Orange climbed back from a double-digit second-half deficit and had two opportunities to either tie or go ahead in the closing minutes. But they could never unseat the front-running Wolverines, who held on for a 61-56 win.
By capturing the Naismith Award on Sunday, Michigan sophomore Trey Burke completed his sweep of the major men's basketball Player of the Year honors, which include the Wooden Award, Oscar Robertson Trophy and AP Player of the Year Award.
Burke is the first Michigan player to win the AP's POY honors since Cazzie Russell in 1966.
On the year, Burke averaged 18.5 points per game and posted a 3.09 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Michigan and Louisville will face off on Monday, April 8, for the NCAA men's basketball national championship.