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April 8, 2013

The final showdown

ATLANTA — The hoops teams at Louisville and Michigan are used to being overlooked.

The Cardinals may be a national powerhouse, but they’re still considered second fiddle in their own state. The Kentucky Wildcats are the blue bloods of the bluegrass, while Louisville settles for being viewed as more of a blue-collar school.

The Michigan basketball team knows what that’s like. Football rules on the Wolverines’ campus — rightly so, said Tim Hardaway Jr., given that program’s long, storied history.

“We still have a ways to go,” said Hardaway, Michigan’s junior guard. “Football has a lot more national championships than we do.”

Well, it’s kind of hard to overlook either team now.

Louisville and Michigan will meet Monday night in the NCAA championship game.

The Cardinals (34-5) have lived up to their billing as the tournament’s top overall seed, blowing through their first four opponents before rallying from a dozen points down in the second half to beat surprising Wichita State 72-68 in the national semifinals.

It’s been quite a run for the Louisville athletic program, in general. The women’s basketball team also reached the Final Four, while the football team won a Big East title and stunned Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

All the while, they’re battling with Kentucky for the state’s affections.

“We’re not a who’s who like Harvard and Yale in the alumni world,” coach Rick Pitino said Sunday. “We’re a blue-collar school that supports each other. One of the coolest places I’ve ever worked.”

Pitino should know. He also worked at Kentucky, leading the Wildcats to a national title in 1996.

Now, he’s got a chance to become the first coach to win championships at two schools.

“I haven’t thought about it for one second,” insisted Pitino, already the first coach to guide three schools to the Final Four. “We have built a brand on Louisville first. Everything we do is about the team, about the family. I’d be a total hypocrite if I said (winning another title is) really important. It really is not important. I want to win because I’m part of this team. That’s it.”

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