MORRISSEY: Michigan’s Spike Albrecht reason we love NCAA tournament
BY RICK MORRISSEY firstname.lastname@example.org April 8, 2013 11:33PM
Michigan guard Spike Albrecht (2) reacts against the Louisville during the first half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 8, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Updated: April 8, 2013 11:49PM
ATLANTA — This is why we watch. We watch, hoping for the chance to witness something improbable, perhaps by the most improbable player on the court. That’s the dream. That’s the magnetic pull of the NCAA tournament.
His name is Spike Albrecht. He is 5-11 and 170 pounds with unconfirmed reports of facial hair. He comes from Crown Point, Ind., went to a prep school after high school and had exactly one scholarship offer from a major university.
That’s how he came to find himself on the floor for Michigan in the national title game Monday, but it doesn’t begin to explain what he did against Louisville or, more bluntly, how in the hell he did what he did. The simple explanation is that this is March Madness and these things happen.
Just not to this extent. Albrecht carried Michigan in the first half, carried his team the way Louisville’s Luke Hancock carried his team in the Cardinals’ 82-76 victory against the Wolverines.
Albrecht had 17 points by halftime on the biggest stage in college basketball, going 4-for-4 on three-pointers. He had the half of his life Monday, had the half of anybody’s life, really. He quieted down in the second half, but the echoes wouldn’t shut up.
Write this as a novel, and it will end up in the bargain bin within hours. Ridiculous plot. Implausible. Silly. A movie? ‘‘Hoosiers’’ meets ‘‘White Men Can’t Jump’’ meets ‘‘Gigli.’’
But a crowd of 74,326 at the Georgia Dome watched something else. It watched the freshman backup make three-pointers and drive past much more heralded players for layups. Until three or four days ago, just about anyone was more heralded than this kid. He had ‘‘Washington General’’ written all over him. Still might.
Michigan coach John Beilein never will be mistaken for a poet, but he captured the tournament in an almost poetic way the other day. He was talking about Albrecht, but he could have been talking about any player on the outside of stardom looking in.
‘‘It is that mystery of the young kid, the altar boy, the choirboy like Spike — the 18-year-old kid that hasn’t played well coming in and makes big baskets — that makes this game so great,’’ Beilein said. ‘‘The pros are so much about stars. The college game is so much about the team. Seventy-five thousand people here, they wanted to be at an event where they could see the shining moments of Spike Albrecht, [Michigan’s] Caris LeVert.
‘‘It’s incredible what the little guy has meant to college basketball.’’
Perfect. And perfectly poetic.
Beilein had agonized about offering Albrecht a scholarship. Here was a kid who had an offer from Appalachian State but not much more. He watched tape of the skinny point guard running the show in high school and prep school. The coach thought people would think him crazy for recruiting the baby-faced kid. He thought right.
But that was Albrecht tearing up Louisville in the first half. The last time he felt that good was high school, he said.
‘‘A year ago, I didn’t have anyone looking at me, and [Beilein] took a chance on me,’’ Albrecht said. ‘‘It’s something I’ll never forget. But when he recruited me, he said, ‘We’re here to win championships.’ I wasn’t surprised at all that we got here. That’s been the goal since Day One.
‘‘As far as my performance, when I go out there, I’m confident. That’s about it.’’
There is room for players like him in the NCAA tournament. There is room for a player who couldn’t convince chatty airport TSA officers that he was heading for his recruiting visit to Michigan. With that body?
‘‘He may not win the look test, but he’s definitely going to make plays for his team,’’ said Wolverines point guard Trey Burke, whose two first-half fouls got him a seat on the bench and gave Albrecht a chance to shine. ‘‘He’s got a bright future ahead of him. I wasn’t really surprised by his performance. We see him do things in practice a lot.’’
The NCAA tournament is about a nation rallying around Louisville’s Kevin Ware, who broke his leg in a very hideous and very public way against Duke in the Midwest Regional final. But it’s also about his replacement, walk-on Mitch Henderson, who made two big three-pointers to start the Cardinals’ comeback against Wichita State in the semis.
You can argue that lots of people are interested in the NCAA tournament only because of their bracket competitions. You also can say the NFL is hugely popular only because of the millions of people who gamble on it every week during the season.
In other words, so what?
I’m a sucker for the NCAA tournament. I make no excuses for that. I know it’s as commercialized as every inch of Jeff Gordon’s racecar, but there’s still a chance for unlikely players and unlikely schools to make a difference in the tournament.
I’m not naïve. This is big business. Louisville coach Rick Pitino argues that college basketball players are being paid — through lucrative scholarships. But he doesn’t mention his $3.9 million annual salary or the $600,000 retention bonus he’ll earn each year from 2014 through 2022.
Thank goodness there is room for no-names to become household names. Or nicknames. Thank goodness for a skinny kid named Spike. He’s why we watch.