ATLANTA - Perhaps because he'd just won the second NCAA title of his career, Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino said of the difference in the game he coaches now to the one he steamrolled over in 1996 as the Kentucky coach:
"I think the game is much better than it was in '96. ... You had no idea who was going to win this tournament. I think that's so much fun as long as the game is well-played."
There's little arguing that the Cardinals' 82-76 win over Michigan was one of the better-played fast-paced championship games in recent memory. Its only rival over the past decade might be North Carolina's 75-70 win over previously unbeaten Illinois, arguably one of the better title games ever.
Even losing coach John Beilein said, "It was fun."
And it was a fun tournament -- especially the Final Four -- even if Louisville's overall No. 1 seeding entering the event somewhat undermines Pitino's argument that you had no idea who would win.
The Selection Committee had some idea who should win or it wouldn't have tabbed the Cards the best of the best.
Still, to watch Louisville's narrow semifinal win over Wichita State -- "We got outplayed for about 34 [of 40] minutes," Pitino said -- was to know that parity is still growing in the college game. Especially considering that a No. 15 seed (Florida Gulf Coast) reached the Sweet 16 and two No. 16s (Western Kentucky, Southern) each lost to a No. 1 seed by less than 10 points.
But could the fun continue a year from now? Could another mid-major on the order of Wichita State crash next year's Final Four at the 100,000-seat Cowboys Stadium in North Texas?
In the hours immediately following Louisville's win Monday night, it appeared as if the Cardinals could easily mount a serious repeat campaign. But junior guard and leading scorer Russ Smith since has been reported to be entering the NBA draft, junior center Gorgui Dieng already was expected to jump to the NBA and no one yet knows if sophomore guard Kevin Ware's badly broken right leg will heal in time for him to play next season.
What is known is that 2012 champ Kentucky is bringing in an epic recruiting class in attempt to deliver the Bluegrass State the kind of run that the state of Alabama has enjoyed of late in college football.
Just as Alabama has sandwiched three BCS crowns around bitter rival Auburn's 2010 title, UK hopes to extend the Commonwealth's run of two straight NCAA titles to three next season. The Wildcats already have been tabbed almost everyone's preseason No. 1 over the past 24 hours, and that could only grow if they land No. 1 recruit Andrew Wiggins, who currently has Florida State, UK, Kansas and North Carolina as his final four choices.
And while Kansas certainly is rebuilding next year, should Wiggins choose the Tar Heels, they could become 1A to UK's 1, which was similar to the way the two schools began the 2011-12 seasons.
As for others, Duke is always a threat, especially with top-five recruit Jabari Parker committed. Arizona could easily reach the Final Four after landing top-five recruit Aaron Gordon last week, as could Florida, which might have almost as much talent as Kentucky, thanks to incoming top-10 recruits Kasey Hill and Chris Walker, as well as frontcourt transfers Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech) and Damontre Harris (South Carolina).
Anyone looking for a dark horse might want to watch Alabama, Iowa State, Marquette, Memphis, Oregon and Tennessee.
What we'll hopefully watch less of is bad officiating, which regrettably reached its apex inside the Georgia Dome, where it could be argued by the losing teams in all three games that a key blown call (or two) did them in.
Again, Pitino: "We have to tweak [the officiating] where everybody is not just taking off and drawing offensive fouls. We've got to make it where 80 percent [of those charges] are blocks. Then we've got to create more freedom of movement."
Maybe they will; maybe they won't. But a couple of quotes from the champs illustrate better than anything why the players are the most compelling part of any sport.
Said the injured Ware before the Dome crew wonderfully lowered the basket so he could snip off a piece of the net: "You would think we all came out of the same womb. We are brothers."
Back in Louisville, they will be brothers seen as conquering heroes, presumably with all the trappings of success.
Or as sophomore forward Chane Behanan said of walk-on Tim Henderson after the Louisville native hit perhaps the two biggest 3-pointers bagged by the Cards all year:
"Tim will be riding on thrones, carried by beautiful women."
Which just goes to show that since the beginning of time -- whether it be military battles or college ballgames -- to the victors go the spoils.