I can’t remember how many brackets I’ve filled out. I know I’ve done it for at least ten seasons, because I vividly remember UConn’s championship in 2004. I remember the beast, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon specifically taking out Duke on their way to the finals. I don’t remember which team I had chosen that year, but it wasn’t them.
I know exactly who I picked the following year: UConn. I didn’t know any better; I was 13. They were knocked out in the second round by NC State. And the cycle had begun.
Gonzaga in 2006: Dropping a heartbreaking game to UCLA. Adam Morrison crying at midcourt; me crying over my dead bracket.
Texas in 2007: Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustine failing to pass by USC in the round of 32.
Oklahoma in 2009: Blake Griffin overwhelmed by UNC’s stacked roster in the Elite 8.
Missouri in 2012: Losing to Norfolk State, a 15-seed that shot 54% from the field, including 10 of 19 from deep.
This year, things would be different. I would make sure of it. I watched more college basketball than I ever had before. I made sure to watch as many ranked matchups as possible, whether it was Indiana-Michigan, Duke-Miami or Louisville-Syracuse. I started to figure out which teams I really liked – Duke, Michigan State, Florida, Ohio State and Syracuse – and which ones I thought were overrated – Gonzaga, Georgetown, Wisconsin, Butler and Notre Dame.
Through all of that though, there were only two teams I loved: Louisville and Miami.
The regular season ended. Both of “my teams” were in the top 10. Both head into their conference tournaments with at least a share of the conference title. Miami breezes through the ACC without the threat of Duke. They won all three of their games by double digits, and achieved one of basketball’s highest honors – ACC regular season and tournament champion.
Louisville went into the Big East tournament riding a seven-game win streak, including several important conference victories. They blew past overmatched Villanova and Notre Dame squads, and found themselves in a title match scuffle with Syracuse.
I had figured that regardless of what happened, I would eventually have to choose between Louisville and Miami as my National Champion. And indeed, these two teams were the last two standing in my bracket. But by halftime, Syracuse lead Louisville by 13.
By the end of the game, Louisville had won by 17, exploding for 56 second-half points against one of college basketball’s stingiest defenses. A massive 27-3 run midway through the second half lifted Louisville and put them ahead for good. It was about 10 minutes of the best basketball I had seen on this level.
I was sold.
The selection committee released their decisions and I had Louisville atop my bracket within minutes. I thought through many changes in the days leading up to the tournament, but the champion was never up for debate. I never considered them losing to Michigan State, or Ohio State, or Miami (as my bracket would have it – what turned out to be Duke, Wichita State and Michigan in reality). As I tracked several teams’ potential runs, I found myself thinking all too often, “Oh, then they would have to play Louisville…”
Their first two games offered little resistance, but that has become all-too common for top seeds. Their third matchup, Oregon, looked closer than it was. Louisville jumped ahead early and coasted for most of the game. Oregon stuck around, but was never able to make a final push. The seven-point margin of victory is deceiving.
Into the Elite 8 without so much as a scratch, Louisville got pushed early by Duke. Then came the infamous Kevin Ware injury. The Cards were clearly shaken. They were up only 3 at the half. That lead ballooned to 22 by the game’s end, seeing Louisville hang another one of those 50-point halves on the board. Coming out of their region, with only a nine seed and two four seeds left, it appeared that their greatest test was behind them.
How truly wrong that was.
Wichita State, the tournament’s last surviving Cinderella, (sorry Florida Gulf Coast and La Salle, sweet 16’s don’t cut it) challenged the Cardinals like they hadn’t been challenged in months. The Shockers represented a freakishly athletic team that muscled their way through the paint and knocked down 3’s like nobody’s business. They built a 12-point lead in the second half. Louisville was reeling. I’m writing a eulogy for my champion. It’s happening again.
Enter Luke Hancock.
Did I know who Luke Hancock was prior to the Final Four? I remember him vaguely from the five-overtime game against Notre Dame, in which he soaked up a lot of time (you know, because they played for 65 minutes). That was the extent of my knowledge on the subject. He was a solid bench player, averaged about 22 minutes a game, scored in the single digits, definitely wasn’t a game changer.
You think of Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng as the ones who are going to impact the game. But they were getting handled by Wichita State. and the game was quickly getting away from them and their stagnant offense. Off the bench steps Cool Hand Luke and he goes to work. He’s driving the lane and dropping in reverse lay-ups. He’s hitting 3’s, and deeper 3’s and the deepest 3’s. He poured in 14 points in the second half when the Cards needed him most. Without him, they don’t even make the championship game.
But Hancock was not done. Fast forward to the National Championship, Michigan is absolutely tearing it up. The Louisville press can’t get turnovers, the defense can’t stop anything, Russ Smith is playing like a scared child (sorry to pick on you Russ, but not a good showing on the big stage). Again, Louisville finds themselves down big, this time in the closing minutes of the first half.
Pitino calls a timeout at 3:33 with his team trailing 33-21. The Michigan section is going bonkers, Louisville fans staring on silently. They needed something right then and right there. They needed a hero. Hell, I needed a hero. Luke Hancock provided one.
Over the next two minutes and 34 seconds, Hancock scores 14 points, including 4/4 from beyond the arc. Absolutely unheard of. Louisville pulls within one at halftime, and wears Michigan down in the second. Hancock adds a dagger three with a few minutes left (making him 5/5 if you’re scoring at home) and timely free throws to secure the victory. He was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player, which kind of steals my thunder a little, but is totally deserved nonetheless.
Some people say that Siva was worthy of the award, and certainly he was. Some people say Trey Burke, even in a losing effort. Both deserving candidates. But without Luke Hancock, Louisville is not the national champion, and they may not have even been runner-up either. He was the spark when the Louisville steam engine had stalled. He stepped up when all others shied away.
I expect the announcement of your presidential campaign soon, Luke. And you can fully expect my vote in 2016.