I was not born in Louisville. I come from Minnesota stock and Louisville's professional sports void has cemented my devotion to the Twins. From April to November I am through and through red, navy, and pinstriped grey. Come fall I trade in the navy for black, Bert Blyleven for Bob Valvano, baseball for college basketball, and the Twins for the Cards. But being a first-generation Cards lover, like a religious convert, it's hard not to sometimes feel like half a fanatic. I don't have parents or grandparents regaling me with tales of championships. I don't have any heirloom ticket stubs, lucky sweaters, or cousins in the student section. And it saddened me a bit this week, reading the voluminous posts on this site, to realize that I had no significant Freedom Hall memories.
But now I have Kyle Kuric.
Like Denny at his best, the old barn has officially passed into a regrettable category: things I missed out on but was lucky enough to glimpse a few times before they were gone. I watched yesterday's game from the couch, burning with pride, loving every second, and wishing I was there. But I know that even if I had been there, I wouldn't have felt the true weight of it. My experience of it wouldn't compare with that of some of my friends, those who have that burning pride encoded into their DNA. So I guess I'm happy enough to have my version of it stored forever on my Tivo. What I already know I'll find on that recording is Kyle Kuric putting the program on his shoulders and carrying it the 5.3 miles north to a new home.
Did you see that coming? A few hours after the game a friend (and fellow CCer) IMed me with, simply, "what a script that was." And that's it exactly: it played out according to a script undreamt of in any of the wildest fantasies we've fashioned in our minds over the past few months. Like most of what I've seen from this team, I had no idea what I was in for when I sat down to watch. For a while now I've mockingly (and a bit derisively) referred to them as The Unpredictables. But in a post-Kuric world that moniker comes out of my mouth imbued with more love and admiration than I thought possible. They played the nation's fourth toughest schedule to some devastatingly bitter ends, but capped it with a cloud nine triumph. Roller-coaster indeed.
So, with a healthy mix of tears and cheer, we bid farewell to Freedom Hall, and say hello once again to Madison Square Garden. Not exactly home sweet home. So I'm trying not to let the emotions of yesterday lead me to amend my less-than-optimistic predictions of this Big East tournament or of the now-assured NCAA tournament that will follow. Optimistic, however, is exactly how I would characterize the visions of the future I'm allowing to dance in my head this morning. Kyle Kuric gave me that gift.
At about the 16:30 mark, Reggie Delk clanked a poorly-selected shot and Syracuse took advantage with an easy basket as the Cardinals scrambled to get back on defense. Timeout is called and Kuric comes in to fill out what could be our best starting lineup next year with Siva and Knowles in the backcourt, Samuels and Swopshire patrolling the paint. Almost immediately Siva penetrates the lane, something we had barely attempted thus far, and gets Samardo his first points on a resounding dunk. Kuric's first points also came on a dunk--which we might as well call the "turning point"--immediately following the glory of Peyton's growing pains in action. First, on a long possession following a timeout, we come up with nothing because Siva lets a pass go through his hands. Then he misses a defensive assignment on the other end, giving Scoop Jardine a good look that luckily bounces out. But Siva follows the ball and deftly pokes it out of Rick Jackson's hands, then saves it from going out and passes it to Preston going the other way. PK hits a certain Evansville native in transition, who promptly slams the damned thing with authority to start the Double K Show. The rest is a story that I hope will become a bedtime favorite of my niece and nephews.
Of course, let's not forget Jerry Smith. For the first half the team was riding his wave. And in the second half he showed off his real talent: with apologies to his long-range shooting (dormant too often this year), hand-checking defensive tenacity, and will-fueled acrobatics in the lane, he is an all-time cheerleader. I hope the injury to the thumb on his shooting hand is healed before Wednesday, but if it's not I know he will still be a major contributor to any success we hope to have. Run the tape back to the Syracuse timeout after Kuric's second basket, another rim-rattler, and you'll see that the first player off the bench to bump chests, jumping with unrestrained joy, was Jerry Smith. The effect he can have from the bench is the kind of stuff that makes you believe this is more than just a game. It's the kind of stuff that makes March Madness the best that American sports has to offer.
If I would have written the script it would have happened very differently. I didn't like seeing Reggie, Jerry, and Edgar out of the limelight on Senior Day. In my version they would have been the guys putting on the show. Nevertheless, Edgar's contributions were huge: a couple of big threes and at least one highlight-worthy play (throwing the ball off Onuaku at the start of the second half as he fell out of bounds). But he clearly wasn't the star. Instead, he was cast as facilitator, stepping aside when someone else had the hot hand. He ended up with more assists (10) than points (9)--someone please tell me the last time that happened. Those nine points, by the way, all came on threes, in keeping with Coach's gameplan for beating the infamous Syracuse Zone. He played a true point guard, keeping the ball moving and getting guys open looks, and he stuck with that plan even when the shots weren't falling. In the least likely of scenarios--Senior Day, last game in Freedom Hall, national TV, against the top-ranked team in the nation, with his mother in attendance at home for the first time in his Louisville career--Edgar Sosa was a great leader.
My script also would have featured more action sequences with Samardo. As it played out, he struggled once again to make an impact in the face of a tough defensive opponent. Not that anyone could blame him, getting the ball into the lane would have been an exercise in futility that Pitino wisely chose to avoid. But these tribulations have vexed Sam Sam against much lesser competition. So he remains one of the biggest question marks we have going into the post-season. How much of a factor is Samardo going to be in the clutch, when the shots aren't falling and we need some scoring from the interior to keep us in games? Can he make big plays in the face of double teams?
My script would have answered those questions, but that wouldn't have made it better. In fact, I can't see how this script could have been better. "The Kyle Kuric Game" was a perfect way to exit the building because, after 54 years of converting an equine exposition hall into a cathedral of college hoops, after having written so much history, after inventing the high five for Christ's sake, look at how much we have to look forward to next year. The new barn awaits us.
I may have missed out on most of what will be remembered of Freedom Hall, but I have Kyle Kuric. My visions of the future culminate one day a couple decades from now, when one of my children or one of my sisters' children finds my Tivo up in the attic, plugs it in just to see if it still works, and gets the thrill of his or her life to find this game still saved on the miraculously preserved hard drive. Then they'll ask me about it and I'll regale them with the story. I'll recall that it happened on March 6th because it was five months to the day after our beloved Twins closed out the Metrodome in similarly memorable fashion and after that game I thought the only way I'd ever have that feeling again would be to win a championship. Then comes along a Cardinal team haunted all year by the words "rebuilding year," a team that could lose a game in such a manner that you considered it a win, a team that also could lose a game in such a manner that you considered wearing a bag over your head. But, in the most important game their home floor had seen in a long time, they came through with a win that did justice to every legend that came before. End of an era? Yes. But also the beginning of something just as good.