With seven regular season games remaining on the schedule in mid-February, Rick Pitino called on his team to win them all. The Cardinals had just lost a demoralizing five-overtime road game to Notre Dame, capping a precipitous three-week fall that saw his team lose four of seven games and drop from #1 in the country all the way out of the top-10. While the Cardinals’ bout with the Irish was heralded by some as the game of the year for its suspense and intensity, Louisville fans shook their heads in resignation after their team choked away an eight-point lead in the final 45 seconds. The team hyped as the strongest national title contender in the Pitino era at Louisville couldn’t seem to generate enough offense outside of Russ Smith, couldn’t seem to generate the fast breaks it desperately needed, and couldn’t seem to close out games.
So Pitino made an improbable request, and his team obliged. They built momentum by overwhelming St. John’s, Seton Hall, and DePaul; they subdued arch-rival Cincinnati and achieved redemption against Syracuse and Notre Dame. All the while, their glaring weaknesses slowly gave way to the singular strengths befitting a preseason consensus Final Four pick. The Cardinals’ backcourt, the sum of whose parts had yet to coalesce, came into form once Kevin Ware began playing extended stints at point guard, as he forced turnovers on defense and relieved Russ Smith of the fatigue of ball-handling duties while Peyton Siva was on the bench. Luke Hancock, the embattled James Madison transfer whose rusty early play drew groans even from press row in non-conference home games, quietly developed into a consistent 37% three-point marksman as his ailing shoulder strengthened. Gorgui Dieng fashioned himself into the Big East’s leading rebounder in conference play and proved he could still hit an elbow jumper despite the brace on his left wrist. All the while, the Cards forced opposing defenses to stretch ever further, opening driving opportunities for Siva after months of being thwarted by aggressive hedging and dense zones. Read the rest of this entry »