Throughout the ecstasy and joy that was the 2012/2013 basketball season, I experienced a calm and confidence never before felt in a Louisville athletic program. I knew that our Cardinal Birds were the best team in the country last year, I was fully assured that if the team was healthy heading into March and played to their ability, I would be able to partake in my first national championship, and Louisville's first since 1986. The Birds delivered and cloud nine has never played host to a guest for this long.
The new version of Louisville's basketball team has inserted a lot of new components, while returning seven contributors from the title takers of a year ago. The Cardinals were slighted in the pre-season by not being ranked number one and now, with an ugly and uninspiring loss in a career game by the North Carolina Tar Heels, the naysayers and negative nancys have come out of the woodwork to point and laugh at the team, and rub salt in the wound of any fan that believed we deserved the top spot in the polls. The calm and confidence that flowed freely through the coaches, players and me a year ago has not evaporated, and in fact has grown stronger. This team has the potential to be better in almost every aspect than the champions from 2013, but potential is invisible, valueless if one refuses to seize it.
If we have learned one thing throughout the roller coaster ride of Hall of Fame Rick's tenure at the University of Louisville it is that our team, no matter how good, how deep or how humble, they will play a bad game early in the season, maybe more than one, lose and show causes for concern. It is an event more certain than traffic jams on 71, a fact more guaranteed than Calipari serving manure for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have seen yesterday's performance before, a team fatigued from Pitino's early season conditioning, dazed and unresponsive to the opponent, a downright invisible performance from almost the entire team. It has happened before, it will happen again, but it does not change the fact that this basketball team is the best in the country, and will be come March.
My red tinted glasses are certainly not blind to the areas of improvement that need to be addressed by the Cardinals, and I have full faith HOF Rick knows what they are. First and foremost is defense. This team has not meshed completely yet, they are not used to playing with one another, and on the defensive side of the ball it is clear they are not able to read each other's minds. The guards are still learning from each other, continuously adapting to the new lineups, and it is clear to see they do not trust in each other 100% yet. Yesterday's game showcased lackadaisical defending of ball screens, improper switching, and help defense resulting in the best players being wide open. These mistakes are easily corrected and will be in time as Russ, Chris, Terry, Kevin, Wayne and Luke learn to play with one another.
The other glaring issue is also defensive but applies to the big men. Gorgui Dieng is gone, but Van Treese, Harrell, Behanan and Mangok still play like he is back there, somewhere protecting the rim. Our bigs need to return the defensive basics, stand your ground, hands straight up, do not bite on the head fake and when the ball goes up turn and get a body on someone. This jumping bean routine has to stop, not only are we not committing fouls and not blocking shots, but it provides excellent and easy offensive rebounding opportunities for the other team. Pitino knows this, will correct it and he will make rebounding a point of emphasis for the remainder of the year. If this team learns to rebound effectively the sky, and banner number four is the limit.
The defending champions are a better offensive team than last year, but must work on the simple things to become truly unstoppable. It is obvious this team needs to showcase a threat from the inside to open up driving lanes and shot attempts for our guards. Russ and Chris need to throw the ball into the post to keep opponents honest, and to relieve the pressure they clearly feel to put the ball through the basket. Russ and Chris will also need to increase their assists, especially Jones. The court is not big enough for two Russ Smith's and Russ is so spectacular at what he does, we do not want an imitator. Chris is our point guard, our Siva, and must always play like it.
The next suggestion revolves around the curious case of Wayne Blackshear. I was a believer, I am a believer and always will be, but I do not remember a player so dependent on rhythm and a game-by-game confidence meter. It is my masterful suggestion to get Wayne involved early so his confidence can be established and feel for the game entrenched. He has an NBA body, NBA potential and pretty stroke from anywhere on the floor. Post him up, clear out and let him get a few shots off in the first five minutes so he feels important, necessary and can seize his confidence each and every time the Cardinals take the floor.
I love college football, but until a full and fair playoff is established it will never compare to college basketball. One loss does not ruin a season, fans can partake, enjoy and adore a team over the course of five months as the players and coaches spend each week tirelessly working to improve and peak for the ultimate prize in April. The 2013/2014 University of Louisville Cardinals have the potential to be the best team in all of basketball once again, they have the potential to carve out their own special spot in history and in our hearts. The effort will be there, the talent is plentiful and evolving, the coach is Hall of Fame, and all that is left is the journey. This group will reach their potential, they will surpass expectations, this team is meant for greatness, and I will join them and all of you in Dallas.
All Hail UofL !!