Both programs constantly are peering over their shoulders. Despite decades of excellence, Louisville often feels overshadowed by the University of Kentucky's crazed hoops fans.
And for most of the past 20 years, Michigan State and Tom Izzo first come to mind when that state and basketball are mentioned.
But on Monday night, no shoulder-peering is necessary. Louisville and Michigan command center stage.
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Roads to the finals:
>> Louisville: Beat No. 16 seed North Carolina A&T 79-48; beat No. 8 Colorado State 82-56; beat No. 12 Oregon 77-69; beat No. 2 Duke 85-63; beat No. 9 Wichita State 72-68.
>> Michigan: Beat No. 13 South Dakota State 71-56; beat No. 5 VCU 78-53; beat No. 1 Kansas 87-85 (OT); beat No. 3 Florida 79-59; beat No. 4 Syracuse 61-56.
Backdrop: Louisville withstood Wichita State on the strength of reserves Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Tim Henderson going a combined 12 of 16 from the field. Wary of foul trouble and weary legs with reserve Kevin Ware sidelined, coach Rick Pitino didn't extend his defense in the first half. It almost cost his squad the win, but the Cardinals turned up the heat late to advance. Michigan's three-guard starting lineup went a combined 5 of 29, but the Wolverines outlasted Syracuse largely because 6-foot-10 freshman Mitch McGary (10 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists) was the best player on the floor.
Coaches: Louisville is seeking to add to its titles won in 1980 and 1986, and Pitino could become the first coach to win crowns at two schools. He won at Kentucky in 1996. This is John Beilein's first title-game appearance and officially the fourth for Michigan (1965, 1976, 1989). The Wolverines' runner-up finishes in 1992 and 1993 were vacated due to NCAA violations. Michigan's lone title came in 1989.
Players to watch:
>> Louisville: Russ Smith (18.9 ppg), Gorgui Dieng (9.8 ppg), Peyton Siva (9.8 ppg).
>> Michigan: Trey Burke (18.5 ppg), Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.6 ppg), Nik Stauskas (11.2 ppg).
The pick: Do you like Smith, Siva and Hancock? Or Burke, Hardaway Jr. and Stauskas? That might be oversimplifying things, especially if McGary sparkles the way he has the past two weeks. But this game should be played at a fast pace, so if one of those trios dominates the other, that will be enough to cut down the nets. Here's a hunch that McGary, with Dieng looming nearby, becomes a mere mortal, and a late Smith basket sends the gold trophy back to Kentucky.