When the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament began three weeks ago, few considered Michigan or Seton Hall among the favorites to reach the Final Four, let alone the final game on the first Monday in April.
The Wolverines, despite their obvious talent, were believed to be a team of underachievers who usually fell on their aspirations in the postseason. On top of that, the team appeared to be in turmoil when assistant coach Steve Fisher suddenly was called on to replace Bill Frieder, who had left to coach Arizona State."I knew we had a chance," senior forward Glen Rice said Monday, "but not many people outside the team believed in us."
If Michigan was doubtful, most fans and experts looked askance at Seton Hall. The Pirates, despite finishing second in the Big East Conference during the regular season, were viewed as a bunch of no-names who wouldn't get past such glamour teams as Indiana, Arizona and Nevada-Las Vegas in the West Regional.
"It's like a dream," senior guard Gerald Greene said Sunday. "We talked about the winning a national championship in the locker room back in October, but a lot of people thought we were just crazy."
Nobody is calling Michigan (29-7) underachievers anymore. And, though Seton Hall (31-6) probably doesn't have a single top-round draft choice, the Big East's former laughingstock could end up having the biggest, and last, laugh when the Pirates meet the Wolverines in the NCAA championship Monday night.
It will mark Michigan's first chance to play for the title since the Wolverines lost to Big 10 rival Indiana, 86-68, in the 1976 final. Seton Hall, which made the NCAA tournament for the first time last year, is playing in the school's first championship game.
"Timing is everything," Fisher said. "I just came at the right time."
Said Seton Hall Coach P.J. Carlesimo, "To be honest, it's very humbling. It might only come around once. This is very special."
The interest in the game is simple: an interim coach still looking to be named as Frieder's replacement and a former interim program angling for a tad more respect. The question of the tournament - "Where is Seton Hall?" - has been answered. Now the Pirates, and Fisher, hope their prayers are answered as well.
But the subplot is a little less Hollywood, one that will be decided by Michigan's awesome offense and Seton Hall's relentless defense. Can a team that seemingly scores at will beat one that, while wearing down the opposition with its full-court pressure, can also put up a few points of its own?
"We've been underdogs most of the year," Seton Hall said senior forward Daryll Walker, who played a large role in Saturday's 95-78 victory over Duke. "We know we can beat anybody if we play our game."
Seton Hall's game is to muscle the opposition all over the court, and beat the other team into submission with its deep bench and its man-to-man defense. "They're like a great heavyweight fighter," said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who watched incredulously as his Blue Devils built an early 18-point lead. "Not a lot of wasted energy when they set up the knockout punch."
But whether the Pirates can pound on Michigan like they did on Duke is another question. The Blue Devils are collectively slow and had their best athlete, junior forward Robert Brickey, play only 11 minutes because of a bruised thigh.
The Wolverines are quick, tall and strong. There are shooting stars such as Rice, rising stars such as sophomore guard Sean Higgins and junior center Terry Mills, and ever-dangerous senior Rumeal Robinson at point guard. They have solid, workmanlike players in Mark Hughes, Loy Vaught and swingman Mike Griffin.
Asked if he watched Michigan beat Illinois, 83-81, in Saturday's other semifinal game, Carlesimo said, "I only saw the last four minutes and that was enough to be scared."