A rivalry retired, two and a half hours of defensive counterpunches showcasing two of the toughest and well coached teams in college basketball, referees worthy of a seventh grade showdown, a rainbow ending in a much needed pot of gold...a basketball game that changes everything for the Louisville Cardinals in 2014.
The world of men's college basketball is full of doubters, believers, and fence straddlers when addressing this Louisville team, but so long as Digger "D'OH" Phelps remains determinedly in the opposite corner of our Cardinals, the opinions and beliefs of the outside world are almost as insignificant as Dick Vitales in-game commentary. Louisville didn't need to beat Cincinnati for the media or for the fans. That soul stealing victory was essential for this team, Russ Smith, Levitch facial hair, Chris Jones, and most importantly Rick Pitino.
Until Saturday this team had been twilight zone peculiar, slaughtering the inferior and stumbling inexplicably down the stretch against quality opponents. Louisville simply had no idea how to close a game. Our players seemed lost in the final five minutes; our coach didn't seem to have an answer, but rest easy because the final one minute and thirty seconds Saturday opened the floodgates for Louisville basketball.
The answer was right in front of this team the whole time; it just took one successful result for all of us to realize the solution and the recipe for title number four. Basketball is a team sport, five guys playing together in pursuit of a common goal, and if my memory serves me correctly, never has a team needed each and every other player on the roster to contribute more than this one. Each Louisville player understands that any night might be their night, and if a teammate is down or off, it is their duty to step up. If the Cardinals continue to soar, it will be because team comes first and these loveable bunch of role players continue to play their roles to perfection.
Russ Smith is an All-American, a Louisville legend, and Saturday he finally accomplished the feat most never thought possible. Russ took over the game by creating, by passing, and by playing completely under control. Coach Pitino, Russ, the team, and all of us fans know and accept that Russ must be let loose in minutes 0-35 of a ballgame. Up until Saturday Russ had been incapable of slowing his pace and making the necessary team plays to capture victory. The final minute thirty in Cincinnati was the moment Mr. Smith and all of us had been waiting for as he showcased the total package and took over the game by making four other people better basketball players. Congratulations Russ, and a special congratulations to Rick Pitino's hair because for the first time in over three years no gray sprouted on account of "Russdiculous".
The Cardinals are going to be repeat champions because in a year with excessive parity, Louisville is the exemplary TEAM and they possess the best combination of role players that fit together perfectly. Every single player on the roster buys into their role and much to Pitino's elation; the Cardinals are finally playing suffocating defense. It might be a stretch and it is certainly debatable, but this year's team might play better team defense than the 2013 champions. It is debatable due to the stats and because Gorgui Dieng erases shots for the Timberwolves now, not the Cardinals, and therefore on-ball defense has had to vastly improve. In recent weeks their statistics have shot them up the national charts and Louisville ranks 18th in scoring defense, 4th in total steals, 21st in field goal percentage defense, 13th in three point defense, 3rd in steals per game, 1st in scoring margin, and 2nd in turnover margin.
Defense is not the only newly found strong suit of the Cardinals because this team understands taking care of the basketball and making the extra pass. Louisville ranks 11th in assist-to-turnover ratio, and our new fan favorite Terry Rozier has only committed 15 turnovers in 536 minutes of basketball. There is a definite occurrence I have observed throughout the season and I will simply call it the Terry effect. When on the floor, certain calm overtakes the team, and everyone exemplifies their best qualities. He makes Russ better, he makes Jones live up to the hype, he involves Mangok, he times Motrezl alley oops perfectly, and Rozier even finds Wayne on the offensive end. Terry Rozier is awesome, destined for greatness, and hey Terry, don't worry the albino squirrel on campus always scared me too.
A special team entered a Saturday showdown, a better team defeated Cincinnati, and a legendary team will cut down the nets April 7th in Dallas. These exciting and enthralling role players are taking shape and learning what it takes to fulfill their ultimate aspirations. Whether it is Mangok's newfound confidence and intensity, Wayne delivering a massive block, Jones's bulldog mentality, Russ's All-American ability, Terry Rozier's poise and demeanor, Hancock's basketball IQ and timely daggers, Harrell's relentless energy and leadership, or Van Treese's indispensable hustle, this group of Cardinals are putting everything together just in time to take March by the throat.
If you want to know what teamwork means, study the Cardinals, if you want a lesson in how a team comes together to overcome obstacles and accomplish the unthinkable, sit back and enjoy the final six weeks of Louisville basketball. Welcome back to March Cardinal fans, it's been a hell of a season, relish the journey, make a few more free throws, and have the NCAA ready another trophy for our display case because the Cardinal show has just begun.
All Hail UofL !!