Last year I wrote about how the Final Four matchup with UK was very very very similar to that of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey team facing the Soviet Union. There were a stark number of similarities. This year we have consistently batted around the idea that this year is like 2009, while at the same time being nothing like 2009 and even toyed with the idea that this could be the year, the time, the place and the team to make it possible. Then, almost out of nowhere we have a Women’s team step up and ride their momentum all the way to their respective championship game.
It’s been a wild ride, but on such rides I think there is a time to sit back and reflect on what this team is fighting for, what us fans are cheering for and how a simple game that consists of putting a ball through a slightly larger hoop is sometimes bigger than us. It can restore faith in the human experience.
These teams have done that.
Kevin Ware suffered undoubtedly one of the most gruesome injuries ever televised. The effects it had were profound and far reaching at a deeply emotional level. If there was a single event during the course of the men’s season that showed what resolve this team had and the love they have for each other – that was it. I don’t think it can be understated - the warmth and love he received from people throughout the world (did you know Oprah talked to him?!) rallied people who had never once cared about Louisville Basketball – which is a remarkable feat.
While a lot has been said about Kevin, his humble nature, his shyness and his demeanor throughout all of this - he will be back next year, he will return. While the events of that Elite 8 game have shaken college basketball fans to the core it has been for the better of the sport and teaches us that it is a fragile game we play.
One of the remarkable unknown stories of the year – Luke Hancock has been playing all season with an ailing father. While I am sure we will hear more about this, their family has sought to keep it a private affair, which I respect immensely. This sheds even more light on Luke Hancocks’ personality as a person and as a player. Unrelenting loyalty, unrelenting support, unrelenting love for others.
I think we all are aware of the grit he has shown - first as a player who some of the fan base was upset with for his lack of performance on the court; second as a player who developed and began to surprise us all with his adaptability; third as a man who kneeled next to an injured teammate and said a prayer at a time when he needed it most; finally as a son playing a game for his father. I get teary eyed just thinking about the relationship between father and son, as well as the determination Luke has to play through such a tough family issue.
The two girls that need no introduction, now: Shoni and Jude. The duo has led Louisville to another shot at the Women's National Title. I don’t think it’s insane to say that Shoni dominated Baylor, pretty much by herself. Then that behind the back pass to her sister? Oh yea, on the reg.
These two (along with their team) have the heart and the courage to stand up to the bluebloods of basketball and let their work ethic and belief in themselves do the talking. They came from humble beginnings, coached by their mother, and made their way off a reservation to a large urban institution to play the roundball (which there is a documentary about). They’re feeding off the momentum they have built for themselves and I have a feeling they’ll be unstoppable. UConn may think it has a clue about what these two are about now, but they don't.
Russ Smith, the undersized player who no one on Louisville's staff but Ralph Willard gave a second look. The quote from Ralph about the interaction between Rick and Russ during recruitment is all too telling about their whole relationship:
"It's the perfect marriage," Willard said. "Rick isn't going to tell you this but when Rick was in high school he was the same kind of player that Russ is. He had four Division I players on his team – and he took more shots than anybody on the team. There's a reason that Rick's nickname was ‘The Rifleman.'"
Russdiculous has become the quirky, spirited, "make coffee nervous" player that no one ever expected to much of anything, yet is on the cusp of becoming a legend of March. Yes, he loves his Waffle House; yes, he gave Rick Pitino bunny ears; yes, he drives even the fans who know what to expect out of him to fits of cursing and rage – but damnit – I wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s the man who we are elated and sad with. He has turned into something greater than any of us expected and his transformation from the freshman bench-rider into the "Did… did… did that really just happen?!" has been worth every second of it.
For the last time (I swear): Did you know he speaks five languages?
I cannot imagine coming to the United States, away from family, to play basketball – let alone to be on the cusp of greatness after taking such a huge risk. While tonight may be his last game in a Louisville uniform, he isn’t leaving us for greener pastures – no, he’s leaving us because he is a capable man who the NBA has far too few of.
Gorgui is a tireless worker with an insatiable appetite for knowledge both on and off the court. To those who know him outside, I have heard he is a great friend and confidant. To those who simply need a babysitter, he’s done that too. Outside the confines of the YUM! Center and the SAC Athletics complex - he really exposes the term Student-Athlete. There are not enough good things one can say about Gorgui - and I've heard many of them from current students there.
The Lady Cards have put together the most impressive string of wins in program history. David beat Goliath, and then beat Goliath again, and then came back from the dead to beat one of his minions. Up next: Goliath named UConn. I know they have the pedigree, 7 titles, yada yada yada. Doesn’t matter, and UConn knows that too. It’s going to be a contest and you should be glad that we're Louisville fans and not UConn fans.
Siva Sr. is a man who needs little introduction. He is a fan favorite family member and one who is always exceedingly gracious when asked to take a photo. He is easy to spot at a game. His unique style of dress and embrace of the Louisville basketball culture has made his a part of our huge family. Additionally, on Senior Day - Siva's family painstakingly assembled lei's for the whole team for good luck, and Sr. looked real sharp in that black pinstripe suit.
Siva Jr. is the man who saved his father. Peyton is the pinned leader of the team and the one player who best epitomizes the #L1C4 mantra. He listens to words of wisdom, and doles it right back out to those when they need it most. While his family story has gotten lost in the post-season shuffle, and had been focused on last year, his story that will remain with Louisville fans is of his grit, determination and willingness to be the guy leading by example.
Rarely do teams as deep as Louisville make it to the championship. Tonight we play a team that is much more similar to the classic championship "make-up:" Three freshmen lead a team who, it just so happens, are all from a NBA pedigree. Meanwhile: Louisville's deep bench means that we play for the guys who make the plays and cheering hardest when needed most: Chane, Hendo, SVT, Fat Wayne, Mangok, Montrezl, Logan, Zach, Baffour.
Even those who are forced to sit and watch their friends play, yet still give their all day in and out, like Mike Marra.
Jeff Walz is now no longer a coach at a small time women’s basketball school – he has taken Louisville into the elite. Two title games in a span of five years with a squad that showed grit and determination to fight and quell the mighty Baylor, then to go on and beat perennial power Tennessee, then to come back to beat Cal?! To be the guy at the helm of that?!
To overcome his stutter, to be a father, to be one of the biggest inspirations in Louisville and lead by doing… again, not enough can be said about Coach Walz.
Rick Pitino: Proud Father, Proud Grandfather, Proud Coach, Louisvillian.
While the accolades being bestowed on him recently, and the tremendous opportunity his son has been given at Minnesota, have been fantastic, he knows what all of us know: We’re not done yet.
His transformation into Louisville Rick has been discussed at length as well, no need to rehash that here, but when it comes time tonight for Rick to shine – he’s not doing it for himself, no; he’s doing it for his family.
A good team becomes a great team when given the opportunity to work with President Jim Ramsey and Athletic Director Tom Jurich. The move to the ACC, the improving academics, the support of athletics to boost the profile of the University, the transformation into one of the fastest improving and growing schools in the Commonwealth: the foresight needed to accomplish those things. These two men have done more for the city as a tandem then what many similar Presidents and AD’s at other universities do for their university. None of this tonight is possible without them, none of it.
We’re in this together. I know a lot of people are going to two title games over the next two days. The fans have always been loyally supportive of the men’s side, but now we have just as rabid support on the women’s side. I want these student athletes to head out on to the floor knowing that EVERYONE is behind them – the whole nation.
These next two days will be the best two days in University of Louisville Sports History – and these two teams, this university and the people here symbolize something greater: we’re a family and we’re all in this together.
Go Cards, Beat Michigan.
Go Cards, Beat UConn.