Unsung Stars Henderson, Albrecht, LeVert & Hancock Define Final Four Winners

Posted by Chris Johnson on April 7th, 2013


Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

When people cite intangible qualities like “clutchness” and “savvy” and “composure,” the descriptions typically fall in line with the quantifiable aspects of a player’s game. Otherwise, the descriptions are casual characterizations of ultimately inexplicable qualities. False conceptions are generated, players are ridiculed – he’s no good in the clutch! He’s terrible in the locker room! – and this whole college basketball analysis thing degenerates into a free-for-all personality profiling exercise. I’m likewise reluctant to throw out loose generalizations about any player’s on-court traits, but there is one point I won’t begrudge – the best players should step up in big games. It’s difficult to define what “best” or “big” even means, quantitatively, but if you were to poll any official authority on college hoops about the definition of the terms, they’d point you directly to the two games played in the Georgia Dome last night. The Final Four is as big as it gets, and when last night’s games lay in the balance, waiting to be seized by each team’s starring individuals, something profoundly strange happened: many of those stars didn’t rise to the occasion.

The driving forces behind Louisville's second half run, Henderson and Hancock, pushed Louisville over the top Saturday night (AP Photo).

The driving forces behind Louisville’s second half run, Henderson and Hancock, pushed Louisville over the top Saturday night (AP Photo).

That’s not odd just because Michigan and Louisville have been sporting “Rise to the Occasion” Adidas warm up gear throughout Tournament play. It’s weird for other reasons, some of them more easy to understand than others. The players who couldn’t meet the demands of Saturday night’s spotlight – Trey Burke, Peyton Siva and Michael Carter-Williams, for starters – created a void of opportunity, which allowed some new faces to step up, greatly affect the outcome of the games and assume the leading roles otherwise dominated by their routinely starring teammates. It’s time to honor Saturday night’s less-heralded stars. Their seasons may not measure up to their household-name-recognizable teammates, but in many ways, the outcomes of last night’s games were the product of their routinely overlooked actions on the court.

Tim Henderson, Louisville. The only circumstance under which you could honestly describe Tim Henderson’s performance Saturday night as anything other than “remarkable” is if your name is actually Tim Henderson, and I’m not so sure even he knew he was capable of sparking the game-changing second half rally that lead Louisville past Wichita State in the national semifinal. True story: With the Cardinals trailing by 12 and the clocking slowly ticking into late second-half panic territory, Henderson buried two triples on consecutive possessions to cut the Cardinals’ deficit in half. Wichita State burned a timeout, the Louisville-half of the Georgia Dome crowd reached full throat, and everything snowballed from there. Louisville’s press started forcing turnovers. Wichita State was suddenly crumbling as the momentum shifted in the Cardinals’ favor. It was a major turning point in a second half that, had Henderson not intervened, may have ended just as it began, with the Shockers calmly deflecting Louisville’s defense and matching the Cardinals blow-for-blow and doing everything, almost everything, to knock off the No. 1 overall seed. Henderson stopped Wichita’s upset bid dead in its tracks.

Spike Albrecht, Michigan. It’s OK to point out the undeniably obvious: Albrecht doesn’t exactly look like your average Final Four backcourt rotation player. He is generously listed at 5’11’ on Michigan’s official website, and his recruiting credentials – ESPN Recruiting Nation gave him a one-star ranking – only emphasizes the unlikelihood of Albrecht  stepping up in a huge spot against the longest and most frightening perimeter defensive front in the country. His contributions came early in the game. Michigan was holding on to a four-point lead late in the first half. The Orange hadn’t scored in nearly four minutes (a Trevor Cooney three), but as Syracuse struggled to convert on the offensive end, Michigan couldn’t create enough separation to feel anything close to comfortable heading into the second half. That’s when Albrecht buried two threes, first on an assist from Mitch McGary, the second off a Trey Burke kick out, and all of a sudden, Michigan had a seven-point advantage and a stronger grip on a tightly-contested game. Those six points widened the gap just before the break, and Michigan came out in the second half with more composure and comfort than it otherwise would’ve had.

As Stauskas struggled to find his stroke, Albrecht and LeVert helped defuse Michigan's backcourt foibles (Getty Images).

As Stauskas struggled to find his stroke, Albrecht and LeVert helped defuse Michigan’s backcourt foibles (Getty Images).

Luke Hancock, Louisville. The most casually overlooked aspect of Kevin Ware’s gruesome injury suffered during last week’s regional final win against Duke was the impact it may or may not have on Louisville’s backcourt depth. The Cardinals aren’t particularly deep at either guard spot; if Russ Smith or Peyton Siva happened to get into early foul trouble, how, exactly would Louisville cope? Hancock emphatically answered that question Saturday night by scoring 20 points off the bench and essentially taking over down the back half of Louisville’s game-turning run. Siva never found his shot, Smith turned in his first even mildly inefficient offensive game of the NCAA Tournament (6-of-17 for 21 points) and the Cardinals needed a jolt. Hancock, with an assist from walk-on Henderson, took over, knocking down three threes and 5-of-7 field goals, energizing his teammates every step of the way and – perhaps most importantly – forcing a crucial jump ball and wresting possession after a late missed free throw appeared to give Wichita State one last opportunity to send the game into overtime. If Henderson provided the spark that changed the run of play, Hancock sustained the burst with consistent offense and big play after big play.

Caris LeVert, Michigan. More than a month had elapsed since LeVert last scored for Michigan. It was a pivotal early-March game against state rival Michigan State, and LeVert dropped eight points to help the Wolverines eke out a one-point win. His bench contributions changed that game and on Saturday night, LeVert reemerged from the scoreless abyss to help Michigan operate against Syracuse’s hellacious zone defense. One week after burying six threes against Florida, Nik Stauskas went ice cold, and the Wolverines needed an able-bodied presence in the backcourt to try and fend off Syracuse’s imposing size. LeVert provided 21 minutes of quality relief – two threes, four rebounds and two assists highlighted a performance that helped Michigan offset a mostly regrettable night from its typically stellar backcourt. Burke labored all night, Tim Hardaway Jr. was effective only in spurts, and Stauskas, as previously mentioned, appeared to have lost the hot streak that made him so dangerous one week prior.

– – –

In an NCAA Tournament customarily defined by stars, bench contributions made a world of difference. LeVert and Albrecht spelled the Wolverines ailing backcourt. Hancock and Henderson flipped a 12-point deficit into a momentous second-half surge. It was almost as if there was a realized sense or urgency, the spectacle of the Final Four evoking the very best from mostly overlooked reserves. They responded in kind, and as Monday night’s title game looms, their efforts could once again help decide the outcome. Only this time, there will be no need for forward-looking analysis; whichever team brings the best of both worlds – bench contributions and star potential – will have secured control of the biggest prize in the sport. Even if these less-visible role players don’t tangibly alter the proceedings quite as much as they did Saturday night, the way they affected the national semifinal victories will not go unnoticed.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.

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