I never turn off a University of Louisville basketball game at halftime, but this time, I did.
It was the regular season finale -- senior day at No. 2 Syracuse. After leading by 5 early, Louisville was down by 10 at half. That doesn't seem terrible, but following a home loss to South Florida and woeful shooting in its previous three games, it became unbearable to watch.
For the game (in which I ultimately watched the waning minutes), Louisville shot a slightly-better-than-whole-milk 8.7 percent from the 3-point line. Meanwhile, Syracuse shot a pedestrian 42 percent en route to a 58-49 win and the No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament.
This game seems as if it were two decades ago. Fortunately for Louisville, head coach Rick Pitino had something up his sleeve. He told his team to forget about the regular season and focus on the new season -- the postseason.
It worked. Louisville has won eight straight, including wins over five ranked teams, heading into quite possibly the biggest game in the history of basketball in the state of Kentucky: a Final Four date with University of Kentucky in New Orleans.
How is a team that couldn't hit a basket in its final regular season game playing in the Final Four? All year long, the pundits questioned the amount of talent on the Louisville squad, despite having three McDonald's All-Americans. People also wondered whether Pitino, who was nominated this year for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, was past his prime. This is to be expected after back-to-back first-round NCAA tournament losses.
One reason is now, the team is healthy, or at least, relatively stable. Three players were lost to season-ending injuries, and numerous players missed games due to injuries. The players who will be available Saturday have been playing together since early February.
But the real reason, I think, is confidence, team cohesiveness and, oddly enough, fun.
Louisville has a number of decent shooters, yet they've had abysmal percentages in a couple of losses this year. Like most sports, bad plays and decisions are sometimes hard to shake off, but that's the only way to do it and be successful.
There's no doubt that this is a confident bunch now, and furthermore, they are an entertaining and likable group at that:
- Russ Smith ("Russ-diculous" as Pitino calls him), the out-of control sophomore guard who never passes up a shot and made headlines by giving Pitino bunny ears during a live interview;
- Gorgui Dieng, the sophomore center who speaks five languages and blocks shots, but then lends a hand to shooters who fall down;
- Chane Behanan, the freshman forward who is as bold with his game predictions as he has become battling for points and rebounds, as noted by his West Region MVP award;
- Peyton Siva, the often-maligned junior point guard who has returned from a nagging ankle injury in time to play his best and take home the Big East tournament MVP;
- Chris Smith, the senior guard who has emerged from the shadow of his big brother, NBA star J.R. Smith, to post solid numbers across the board;
- Kyle Kuric, the senior forward who came in as a walk-on, was put on scholarship but gave it up this year for team depth and currently leads the team in points.
I wasn't the only one who felt this way. Mike Rutherford, from the Louisville sports blog site Card Chronicle, expressed a similar sentiment. "I felt like if things weren't going to change that afternoon then any hope for some miraculous turnaround was officially out the window," Rutherford said. "But now we're here and I still have no idea how it happened."
This opinion could not have been clearer following Louisville's 50-44 victory over Cincinnati in the Big East championship. The happiness displayed by the team, coaches and everyone involved with the team was overwhelming. Team members pranced around the floor together, as if they were kids in the middle of a giant ice cream party. Family members and former Cardinal stars gathered and reveled in the tourney run.
This has been a remarkable accomplishment for a team that has no individuals on any All-America team, nor on the All-Big East team. Pitino deserves a large amount of credit, but despite his optimism, the team could have folded at various times during the postseason. Louisville had big leads whittled to single digits against Marquette and Cincinnati in the Big East tournament, but they prevailed in each. New Mexico made a furious comeback attempt in the NCAA third round, only to fall by 3 points. And when a solid Florida team was up 11 late, the Cards made their own comeback and held on for a 4-point victory.
Louisville is now two victories away from the grand prize -- the NCAA National Championship. Athleticism alone won't prevail, but a combination of teamwork and confidence, together with a dash of craziness and light-heartedness might do the trick. If anyone warrants the title, it's this group of uncommon Cards.
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