Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
I love the Big East Tournament. This is not a fact I'm just now discovering or one for which the validity had fluctuated over the course of the past 12 months, it's just that I think it's one of those events where it takes being in the midst of it to really make you remember how special it is.
It didn't take long for my recollection to be jogged on Thursday. The friends arriving at the Headquarters, the non-assigned assigned seating, the rushed pregame meal, the halftime beer, the everyone noticing the same silly, small things at the same moment, the Russ, the winning, even the fatigue from the busiest day of the college basketball season; I hadn't forgotten how much I missed it all, except I kind of had.
The good news is we get to do it all again in about 20 hours, as Louisville shoots for its third straight trip to the Big East championship game by knocking off the team it beat to earn each of its previous two trips to the title game.
Thanks for the attempt at a reminder, though.
If this really is "The Revenge Tour" that so many Louisville fans have referred to the past few weeks as, then I think it's only right that Notre Dame is in line for a second helping. Last Saturday was for the five overtimes and for the repeatedly snatching victory (or a draw) from the jaws of defeat. Friday will be for the lack of alcohol sold inside the Joyce Center and the "USA" chants directed at Gorgui Dieng form the Fighting Irish student section. And also for this guy...that guy warrants his own personal helping...both from us and Notre Dame fans.
Forget about seedings, hell, even forget about winning a championship: Louisville now has the opportunity to play in, and win, the final two games in the history of the Big East as we know it. That would be awfully special.
While on the topic of awfully special, how about the night Russ Smith had just hours after finding out that his mentor - legendary Archbishop Molloy coach jack Curran - had passed away?
Before the game, Russ posted the following message:
"I found out this morning," Smith said after the game. "I was on the bus crying for about 45 minutes. . . . It's almost hard to even think about. . . . Today was definitely coach Curran's day for me."
For the first three minutes of the game, it was clear that Russ was trying to do a little too much. The most glaring example came on a "Russ on two fast break." Ordinarily he would attempt to draw contact body contact and then finish at the rim, but on this night Russ attempted a one-handed cram over both players. The result was a hard, but clean, foul that left Smith noticeably limping for the next several minutes. His ankle did miraculously heal after Russ knocked down a few jumpers, but I still thought he looked just a touch slower for the rest of the game than he normally did.
Not that it mattered.
The most amazing thing about Russ' incredible night was that after those first few minutes he seemed to play about as even-keeled as Russ Smith can play. He scored 28 points, sure, but he did so because he either took open shots that were created by teammates or because he was getting clean looks that he created for himself. Even though he finished with only two assists, I thought he also passed the ball really well, he was just hurt (as was Peyton Siva to a lesser extent) by the poor offensive performances by his teammates in the frontcourt.
As much as I've loved every Russ Smith that's been on display over the past two years, this one tonight was the closest I've seen to the one I've been waiting for. For about 24 of the 29 minutes he was on the floor (a low number by Russ standards), Russ found that elusive combination of the aggressiveness that's made him so successful and the control that will take his team, and himself, to the next level.
After the game, Rick Pitino told Smith to play the rest of the season for Coach Curran, something the agreed he would do.
This was a big night for Russ Smith, in more ways than one.
As tremendous as Buzz was, Woody wasn't all that far behind him.
Peyton Siva has always played with fire, but he took things to another level on Thursday. I don't think there's any question that he'd heard the talk of himself being a guy who "plays to the level of the moment," and was attempting to fit the description as well as he did in this event a year ago. That was as intense as we've seen that young men in four years, and I can't imagine we'll see that intensity dip on Friday.
Siva did a far better job of handling the long and physical Villanova defenders than he did two months ago, keeping his dribble when it was necessary and hitting the open guy when he had the opportunity. I'm also a huge fan of his "slow fall on my ass" three-point style. He was 2-for-2 on it, and both came at times when Louisville was struggling to get baskets.
SFOMA all you want, young man.
It's somewhat ironic that all season long Louisville's outside shooting has been referred to as its one potential Achilles heel, and yet in their first postseason game, the best ally the Cards had was the three-point shot.
I can admit it now that it's over, but I was uneasy about this game. The first eight minutes, and really the entire January game, illustrate why. Villanova will defend the hell out of you, and they'll do it with that tough, hard-hedging man-to-man defense that we've struggled so mightily with at times in recent years. With the officials letting both teams play, it was on the Cads to knock down some open shots to keep Wildcat defenders from being able to help cut-off the drives of Smith and Siva. This they did.
Louisville got just 1-of-5 makes from the red hot Luke Hancock, but still finished 10-of-24 from beyond the arc. They needed some guys to hit some shots in order to get 'Nova out of its comfort zone, and that's exactly what they did.
Red hot Luke Hancock, eh?
I'm loving this guy more with each passing game.
In addition to the hot shooting, of course, was the remarkable defense. Louisville forced (or just watched) 24 Villanova turnovers and recorded 54 deflections, the highest number Rick Pitino says he's had a team record since he started keeping track.
These guys know what got them to this point, and if they lose between now and April 8 it's not going to be because they fell in love with themselves and allowed their effort level on the defensive end to drop.
Let's talk about the uniforms.
The sleeves don't bother me as much as the fact that the shorts and the body of the jerseys do not match whatsoever. Also, I just noticed tonight that the underbelly of the sleeves are red. You see something new every time you examine these bad boys. I can't wait to see the second verse of "Piano Man" stitched on the left thigh tomorrow night.
As for who wore it best, I think Russ made it work because Russ makes everything work. Peyton, Kevin and (I'll just say it) Luke also looked comfortable in their own camo. Maybe it was just the promotional shots making me familiar, I don't know. As for who wore it worse, as much as it pains me to say it, compression camo uniforms with sleeves simply were not meant for Gorgui Dieng. I couldn't be more sorry, man.
Do I think the uniforms are hideous? Of course they're f---ing hideous, but these things are about being different and getting people talking. If we win a Big East Tournament title and a national championship in these duds, my first move after sobering up on April 9 will be a trip to Dick's to purchase both the jersey and shorts, which I will then proceed to wear for the succeeding spring and summer months.
Derby Day? Compression camo jersey tucked into camo shorts. Thursday night Bats game? Compression camo jersey tucked into camo shorts. Upscale wedding in New England for one of my best friends? COMPRESSION CAMO JERSEY TUCKED INTO CAMO SHORTS.
This is just a warning, Louisville...a glorious, glorious warning.
A lesser man might refer to Louisville Vs. Notre Dame as "Camobalism" which I just did because I'm a lesser man and it made me laugh when I first thought of it.
All political feelings, opinions and affiliations aside, the Bill Clinton stuff is really cool...or at least really hilarious.
Kudos to Matt Norlander for digging a bit deeper and coming away with some tremendous quotes.
"We all love Bill Clinton," Smith said. "He walked in and it was like, 'Ahhhhh!!! Bill Clinton!"
"We all approached him -- very slowly," Behanan said. "He was telling us about becoming a president, how things were, traveling, and he talked to Gorgui (Dieng) about visiting Senegal, asked what city he (Dieng) was from. I thought I'd never meet a president. AN honor and a blessing."
As for the man's candor and demeanor, Behanan was a quote machine.
"I mean, I think the president got swag, he got that swag to him," Behanan said. "I don't want to say what type of swag he got, but he got swag. I don't know if it's appropriate -- I mean, it's appropriate, but I don't want to say. I don't want to start nothing up."
Oh, but you already did, Chane. This is turning into an awesome Big East tournament.
Apparently Clinton spoke at length with Gorgui Dieng about Senegal, a moment which was captured by the folks at U of L.
Basically, I'm Cady Heron and this is a picture of The Plastics...except there's no part of me that's ever not wanted to be their fourth best friend.
I've slept like four hours out of the past 48. I'm allowed to make as many Mean Girls references as I want to. I did not leave the South Side to be a caged in blogger. See? That's another one. I can go all night. That's not one. What day is it?
Also, get excited.
God I love the postseason.
Louisville's leading rebounder on Thursday was Stephan Van Treese, who snagged eight of them in just 15 minutes. I love that Pitino trusts him for long stints on the court in big situations. I think he's earned that.
Card Chronicle Big East Tournament Correspondent Eric Wood is back for another year, and he reports that the reason Rick Pitino could be seen addressing someone in the crowd during the game was that (according to the folks at the Garden) his wife and another female member of his family had been verbally harassed by the same pair of chotches multiple times. Security came down to the area twice, but according to the media folks, it was Pitino himself who told them not to throw the gentlemen out.
Wood himself spoke to the unruly MSG patrons after the game, who denied any wrongdoing. My guess is that an impression was still made.
The box score indicated that Gorgui didn't have a great offensive game, but it was just one of those nights where his jump shots were only an inch or so off. They looked the same as they have over the past couple of weeks, it was...just one of those nights. The three rebounds could have been better, though.
I know our big men haven't displayed the best hands this year, but I honestly believe that a lot of the first-game struggles that Big East teams have when they play in the Garden are because of a struggle to adjust to the lighting. I seriously think it's part of the reason you see some bad shooting and guys not being able to squeeze rebounds or high passes. Or I could be completely off base. Or I could be partially correctly. It's probably one of those three.
Really enjoy how audible everything is this week. The Gorgui "Oh my God!" after a foul call late in the first half was an especially rewarding experience.
We saw glimpses Thursday of the aggression that Wayne Blackshear has to display in order to be the asset he needs to be for this team to hit its potential. He was active around the basket early, he drove to the goal multiple times, and he made a tremendous defensive play on a block during the first half. It's still a process with Wayne, but getting his confidence level and his intensity up about three or four notches are the most important things right now.
Thursday night was the seventh straight Big East Tournament game where Peyton Siva has scored in double figures. That's pretty impressive.
Loved the audible "C-A-R-D-S" and "Luuuukkkeeee" cheers from the Cardinal faithful in the building. I hope you all are having a blast.
The best part about winning tournament games is that you get something to look forward to the entire next day. This really is the best time of the year.
One down, eight to go.
You with me, Kevin?
Kevin's with me.