Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. The Final Four Is Set. Another week of inter-round boredom awaits after four teams advanced to college basketball’s final weekend. This Tournament hasn’t lacked for upsets, but it also hasn’t totally eviscerated the brand-name blue blood royalty that drives interest and TV viewership. The final grouping is an eclectic mix, filled with just enough Cinderella intrigue and just enough high-seed power to make next weekend’s action in Atlanta a satisfying climax to a memorable college hoops season. The Final Four is the refined product of months of regular season carnage, conference Tournament rigor and, lastly, four rounds of grueling Tournament play. But we made it here, and now, all there is to do is stick along and enjoy the final push for National Championship glory.
Your Water cooler Moment. Cardinals Validate Favorite Status.The best team in the country took the court Sunday with a clear mandate: whatever you have been doing for the past three games, keep doing it. The Cardinals followed through pretty well, I’d say, because if you were to ask any casual sports fan to identify the differences between Louisville’s 85-63 Elite Eight rout of Duke Sunday and the three victories it used to reach the regional final, responses would be terse and mostly inconsequential. Louisville provided yet another thrilling 40-minute sample of the best and most complete basketball being played anywhere right now, and this time, it was Duke – long considered the best team in the country, especially with forward Ryan Kelly in the lineup, with whom the Blue Devils had dropped just two game prior – falling victim to Louisville’s dominating form.
True to the Cardinals’ season-long identity, they won primarily with defense. They forced Duke into 11 turnovers, 36 percent shooting and just 25 percent from beyond the arc. Offensively, the good side of Russdiculous showed up, this time dropping 23 points, and Peyton Siva (16 points, 6-for-10) and Gorgui Dieng (14 points, 11 rebounds) filled in around the margins. Mason Plumlee gave Duke the inside presence it absolutely needed, but Kelly – beset by foul trouble for much of the first half – never got going on the offensive end and Seth Curry finished 3-for-9 with just 12 points, a drastic downturn after his banner 29-point night against Michigan State in the Sweet 16. The Cardinals are the best team left in this field; debating otherwise is silly at this point. There’s a reason Rick Pitino opted not to cut down the nets after winning the Big East Tournament championship. He knew his team was good enough to reach this point on a grander stage – the NCAA Tournament Championship. Sunday offered no reason to believe Louisville isn’t the overwhelming favorite to finish this season with ripped twine securely in tow.
(*I address Kevin Ware’s first half leg injury in the “Tweet of the Night” section below.)