Pitino’s offer wiped out Johnson’s home state loyalties
Indianapolis — Growing up, Louisville forward Jaylen Johnson was enamored with Michigan and Michigan State.
Johnson, an Ypsilanti native, rooted for the Spartans and Wolverines except when they faced one another. Then it was just Michigan State.
“I used to go to Michigan games like, ‘Man, I want to play here. I want to play in this type of environment,’ ” Johnson said. “Then I’d go to Michigan State games and would want to play in that type of environment.”
Johnson even grew up playing against Michigan senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. on the AAU circuit, in open gyms and during high school when Walton starred at Harper Woods Chandler Park Academy and Johnson was a standout at Ypsilanti Community High.
And when Michigan and Louisville met in the 2013 national championship game, Johnson wasn’t cheering on his current team.
“I was rooting for Michigan to win because I didn’t have a Louisville offer. I haven’t really seen anything about Louisville,” Johnson said. “The only thing I seen was ‘Through the Fire’ (documentary) with Sebastian Telfair. But other than that I was rooting for Michigan to win because that would’ve been sweet having the hometown team win the championship.
“They lost and by that summer that’s when I kind of blew up a lot.”
And by July before his senior year, Louisville coach Rick Pitino came calling, pulling the allure away from Michigan and Michigan State.
“When he was recruiting me I was like, I can really go where I want to go because even at Kentucky he’s coached a lot of great players and that’s exciting,” Johnson said. “I was thinking if he can do it with these type of players, imagine what he can do with me? He can definitely make me the best player I’ve ever dreamt of being.”
Johnson made unofficial visits to Michigan and Michigan State, but couldn’t shake the attraction of playing for Pitino. Not even late recruiting pushes from the Wolverines and Spartans could change his mind.
“I mean, it was kind of weird at first not getting an offer from my hometown when I was the top player in the nation,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘OK, he don’t want me. Somebody else is going to take me.’
“Soon enough you’re going to realize you should’ve taken me.”
On Sunday, Johnson will get a chance to prove it when No. 2 seed Louisville takes on seventh-seeded Michigan in the second round at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Despite only five head-to-head meetings, Michigan coach John Beilein and Pitino have had several classic encounters.
For Pitino, Louisville’s come-from-behind overtime win over Beilein’s West Virginia team in the 2005 Elite Eight is at the forefront.
“I’ll never forget that game,” Pitino said. “That one sticks out to me the most of any game I’ve ever coached because we were playing basically seven players. We never pressed. We never played man. We just played a two-three bumping zone, not even a matchup. Our seventh man, Otis George, had a stress fracture, so he didn’t practice.”
Pitino’s team managed to overcome West Virginia’s 11 made 3-pointers and rally from a 20-point deficit.
“We could not play them zone. They just torched us in the way they shot the ball,” Pitino said. “There’s a lot of similarities to the way they shot it and the way this (Michigan) team shoots it.
Forward Duncan Robinson received a black eye he was struck by an elbow going for an offensive rebound in the second half against Oklahoma State.
“It wasn’t a foul or anything. I kind of stuck my head in where I shouldn’t have been, to be honest with you,” Robinson said. “Feels good. Makes you feel tougher, which is always nice. Maybe a little intimidation factor for the game.”
Robinson said the shiner on left eye doesn’t affect his vision.
… Sophomore center Moritz Wagner recalled watching a recording of 2013 title game between Michigan and Louisville on a bus when he was traveling to a game with the Alba Berlin youth team.
Wagner said he watched it with a teammate but the rest of the team didn’t share a similar interest.
“Two big brands playing against each other,” Wagner said. “Spike (Albrecht), 12 years old, looks like coach Beilein just subbed in his grandson, dropping 20 in one half. It’s amazing. And three years after that you’re a teammate with him. Tim Hardaway’s dunk, unbelievable. It was great.”
No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 2 Louisville
When: Sunday, 12:10 p.m.
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Records: Michigan 25-11, Louisville 25-8
At stake: Spot in Midwest Region semifinals against Oregon-Rhode Island winner