Louisville's triumph and the improbable hot hands - NBC Sports

Louisville's triumph and the improbable hot hands
How previously two unheralded players created an NCAA championship for the ages
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Luke Hancock of the Louisville Cardinals celebrates as he cuts down the net after they won 82-76 against the Michigan Wolverines during the 2013 NCAA Men's Final Four Championship.
April 9, 2013, 8:04 am

Begin with this: There is no such thing as a hot hand. There have been many studies done on this. Psychological studies. Mathematical studies. The hot hand is an illusion. A shooter who makes three shots in a row is no more likely to make the fourth than if he had missed three shots in a row. Or, anyway, that's what the studies continuously and consistently show.

So that's the math of it. Now, we will relive 15 minutes of Monday's wonderful NCAA championship game between Louisville and Michigan, which the Cardinals won 82-76. That game was a bit like the famous M.C. Escher lithograph, you know, the one where stairs go in every direction so that it is all but impossible to tell which way is up or down, what is real or an illusion, which way the gravity pulls. You could climb up (or down) any one of those staircases and find something surprising and marvelous.

There was Michigan's Trey Burke, probably the best player in the country this year, crashing into the solar plexus of Louisville's swarming defense again and again and again in the second half in a desperate effort to keep his team going.

There were Michigan's Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr., sons of famous basketball players, who have carried their famous names and created their own identities as part of a team that would not wilt.

There was Louisville's Chane Behanan, one of those players who again and again had been told by coaches and teammates to grow up. And so on this night, though he is only 6-foot-7-inches or so, he made himself the biggest man on the floor, and he grabbed 11 second-half rebounds, and finally broke Michigan's will.

There was Michigan's John Beilein, who had coached his way up from the junior colleges to reach the peak of college basketball, and he was surrounded by dozens of his family and former players who were ecstatic for him. There was Louisville's Rick Pitino, on the lucky streak of his life - in one week, his son got the Minnesota job, his horse qualified for the Kentucky Derby and he was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Pitino has had some bad streaks in recent years, some of it self-inflicted, some of it tragic, so he would not guess how long the ride would last.

And, of course, there was Louisville's Kevin Ware on the bench just a week after he suffered his gruesome injury on national television.

So many angles. Too many angles. This was a rare thing - a thoroughly great and classic basketball game that did not end with a miracle shot or overtime thrills. Usually we need that kind of big finish to make the game memorable. Well, Louisville won the championship by six, and though there were a few legitimate gripes about officiating (especially a foul call on Burke on what replays suggested was a clean block), the game was not controversial. In the end, Louisville wore down Michigan with its constant pressure and the relentless play of Benahan and that was that.

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Michigan v Louisville

Check out some of the top images from the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Well, Michael is his real name. His parents called him Spike because when he was little he wore spikes everywhere as a constant message that he wanted to play a game. In many ways, he never changed. Spike is just 5-foot-11-inches, and no big time program recruited him. He seemed destined to go to Appalachian State because, well, they were the only school to offer him a scholarship.

He was as shocked as anybody when his high school coach told him that Michigan had called.

An assistant coach had watched Albrecht play, and thought there was something there. The kid could shoot. He did not turn the ball over. He was so competitive. He was so confident. His teams won. Beilein related to him and offered Albrecht a spot on the team. "He took a chance on me," Albrecht would say. "It's something I'll never forget."

Albrecht entered the game with the score tied 7-7. It was an early entry for him. He averaged fewer than eight minutes a game this season, averaging barely two points. His career high before Monday night was seven points.

Then Spike got an open look from three-point range. And, for whatever reason, he shot. "I've always been confident," he would say. The ball swished. And something magical was about to happen.

Two minutes later, he took a pass from Burke, was open again, shot another three. And it too swished. Michigan was up seven. About two minutes later: Another open look. Another three-pointer. Another swish. Now, the crowd was getting crazy loud, because this was crazy. Twitter blew up. The world flipped. Nobody knew whether the stairs were going up or down.

Then, Albrecht got the ball, drove hard to the basket, beat his defender, got fouled and made a free throw. Michigan was up nine. They say there's no such thing as a hot hand, but Spike Albrecht seemed to be glowing, and a couple minutes later he dribbled down the court, right into a defender, jumped and shot the ball with a hand in his face. And this three-pointer dropped too. Michigan by 10.

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Then he attacked the basket, dribbling through a stunned Louisville defense that had prepared for all possibilities but not for Spike Albrecht. He beat one defender, raced by another, got the ball up off the glass and scored. He had 17 points. Michigan led by a dozen. It's unlikely there has ever been a stretch like that in a big basketball game without a teen wolf or the town drunk calling for the picket fence play.

"He kind of killed us there for a while," Louisville's Luke Hancock would say after the game, and all around him Louisville players and coach Pitino just shook their head in wonder. Even after the game ended, nobody could quite believe what they had witnessed. Stuff like this just doesn't happen, not on the biggest stage (the crowd was announced at 74,326 - a record for a final).

And then Louisville countered with something just as amazing. Luke Hancock wasn't recruited much in high school either. He went to a military academy to get noticed. He was offered a scholarship at George Mason, which he accepted and he played well as a sophomore. And then his coach, Jim Larranga, left for Miami, and Hancock transferred to Louisville. He promptly and badly hurt his right shoulder. He'd already hurt his left shoulder. For a while, there was some question whether he could play.

"Probably the toughest kid I've ever coached," Pitino would call him. He named Hancock co-captain before he played a single game.

Hancock came off the bench pretty much the entire season. He played a lot more than Albrecht did at Michigan - he averaged 22 minutes a game and became Louisville's designated three-point shooter. Still, he only made about 38 percent of them. Maybe it was his shoulder. But his game was getting better and better as the tournament went along. In the Final Four game against Wichita State, he was brilliant down the stretch, making the three-pointers that won the game.

When he made the last one, Michigan's lead was cut to one.

It was the wildest duel in championship game history - two backups, two overlooked high school players, two longshots playing H-O-R-S-E in the Dome like they were Magic and Bird, LeBron and Durant, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. It was so wild and preposterous and hysterical that nobody wanted halftime to come.

Halftime did come, and reality set in because reality always sets in sooner or later. Albrecht did not score in the second half. Hancock slowed down too, though he made another three (he was five-for-five in the game) and also drew a key foul when he faked a shot and got Michigan's huge Mitch McGary to leave his feet. Hancock did this to defenders throughout the tournament - his ball-fake must be like a Lance Burton magic trick.

Maybe there is no such thing as a hot hand. Maybe if you look closely enough, you find that a nice streak of made shots is just a consequence of chance and sample size and timing - after all, if you flip five tails in a row, that doesn't mean you have a hot coin-flipping thumb.

But as we all watched Spike Albrecht and Luke Hancock make shot after shot in the NCAA title game, the math didn't matter. "Does he ever miss?" a Louisville fan shouted after Albrecht made one of his flurry of shots.

"Don't let him shoot!" A Michigan fan shouted as Hancock let one go, and it was clear from the arc of the ball that it was destined to fall through the net.

"This is like a movie," a third fan said as the players headed for the locker room. It was. And like the best movies, nobody wanted it to end.

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Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.

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Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski