It's been sort of fascinating to observe just how blissful Monday night's overtime victory has made everyone associated with the U of L basketball program. From Rick Pitino to the morbidly obese guy at the Dairy Mart by my house, there doesn't seem to be a member of the Cardinal contingency who can stop smiling.
On the surface, Louisville's twelfth win of the season wasn't overly impressive. It was a 14-point victory over an opponent which hadn't won in Freedom Hall in 50 years in a game the Cards were favored to win by five and-a-half points.
So again, why the fuss?
It could be because this was the official "we are who we thought we were" moment for both the team and the fan base. After a December that made every U of L fan question whether or not this group which began the season ranked third in the country was even capable of making a run to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the Cards have defeated an arch-rival who appears bound for the Big Dance, gone on the road and handled a team they were supposed to handle, gone on the road and knocked off a squad which could easily be headed back to the Sweet 16, and beaten a team which will likely be competing for one of the four Big East Tournament double byes come the first week of March. The last two weeks have made UNLV and Minnesota feel more and more like Dayton and Purdue.
Or it could be because the Cardinal defense was the key to a victory over one of the best offensive teams in the nation. If you can hold Notre Dame to one bucket over a ten and-a-half minute stretch, then you can hold anyone to one bucket over a ten and-a-half minute stretch. And if you can hold anyone to one bucket over a ten and-a-half minute stretch, then there isn't a team in college basketball that you can't beat. A squad loaded with streaky shooters will be able to win multiple games it probably shouldn't if it can defend like that (see: 3-for-25, Villanova).
It might be because defeat appeared so imminent. Down four, without the ball, running out of time and appearing to have no idea as far as how to go about putting the ball in the basket; this was a situation where 90% of teams in Division I fold up their tents and start promising themselves that they'll do better next time. When the Irish were preparing to take the last shot, I'd already accepted defeat. The best things in life are usually unexpected.
There's a possibility that it was because, with the exception of the first minute and-a-half of the second half, the team appeared to be playing as hard or harder than it had at any other point in the season. And this is coming just two days after a gritty victory 700 miles away.
Maybe it was because of the way the two seniors came up so big. Lack of leadership has been the main point of emphasis for U of L detractors since David Padgett walked off the Freedom Hall floor for the final time, but when their team needed them the most, there was Terrence Williams giving the best overall performance of his collegiate career and serving as the calming offensive presence that this group has so desperately needed, and there was Andre McGee spearheading a tremendous defensive effort and inspiring his tired teammates to suck it up and match his intensity.
Or perhaps it was the play of the oft-criticized young post players. Samardo Samuels looked like a man who has spent the past two months waiting for Big East play to start, going right at Luke Harangody from the game's first possession on, and playing with an intensity and confidence that appeared to have been stolen at some point during the Western Kentucky loss. And then there was Terrence Jennings, shutting down the potential national Player of the Year defensive trip after defensive trip down the stretch, and looking like a guy more than capable of significantly helping this program sooner rather than later.
Any of these alone paired with the obvious fact that Louisville defeated the No. 12 team in the country would have been proper justification for glee, but when you line them all up back-to-back it becomes pretty obvious why the good vibrations have extended beyond just one night.
Monday night's win was sort of like a Christmas stocking: a bunch of small, enjoyable gifts that are technically still just one present. Except instead of chocolate coins and scratch-offs, this stocking consisted of iPhones, cars with giant bows and the mute chick from Planet of the Apes.
I've always said that T-Will's performance in the win at Pittsburgh his sophomore season was his best game as a Cardinal, but Monday night shattered that. Twenty-four points, 16 rebounds, eight assists. I have no doubt that he'll be criticized at length multiple times by fans over the course of the next ten weeks or so, but the kid simply makes this team go. It's not a debate, without Terrence Williams Louisville is 1-2 in the Big East right now.
It's time we all realize what a special player Andre McGee is. Here's a senior captain who has just officially had his starting spot taken by a junior who has had constant problems with attitude and effort, and one whom he has outplayed more times than not over the last season and-a-half, and yet he still comes off the bench and plays as hard as you'll ever see anyone play before ultimately shutting down one of the quickest guards in the country with the game on the line. How many kids in the country are mature enough to maintain that type of attitude?
McGee's on-ball defense was absolutely the spark that ignited the Cards in the last five minutes of regulation and for the duration of the overtime period. When his teammates saw the way he was harassing Tory Jackson, they had no choice but to forget about how tired they were and match the intensity of the smallest guy on the court.
A big, big time effort from the biggest team guy currently donning a Cardinal uniform.
U of L's lack of backcourt talent has been discussed at length for the past six months or so, but Monday night was a prime example of why it's better to have four above average guards than one or two tremendous guards and no one else. When they had the chance to put Louisville away in the game's final minutes, Jackson and Kyle McAlarney simply didn't have the legs to do it, and McGee and Preston Knowles took advantage accordingly.
Being able to replace the offense of Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith with the defensive pressure of Knowles and McGee is a lethal advantage against teams that are forced to play guards for 35 plus minutes night in and night out. It's why no one should be surprised when they watch teams like Notre Dame come to Freedom Hall and hit 9 of their first 12 three-pointers before missing their last eight.
Exhibit 586,789 of why Louisville basketball fans are awesome: the roar when Preston Knowles fought through three screens to deny Kyle McAlarney the ball in the middle of a possession. Most fan bases simply don't recognize or fully appreciate those types of things.
Lukewarm Edgar, the distant, at times hilarious at times unnecessarily vulgar cousin of Good Edgar and Bad Edgar decided to visit on Monday night. He made some solid plays with the ball and actually had more assists (four) than he had in any game since Austin Peay, but the outside shot wasn't there and he simply couldn't bring the type of effort defensively that we had to have to win this game.
I don't think you can call this a setback by any stretch of the imagination, it was simply McGee's game and not his. That's how this is going to work.
I realize the Irish were dead, but it's been a while since we've seen a Louisville team play as well for five minutes as the Cards did in overtime. It was fantastic. What else can you say?
How Luke Harangody is able to do what he does is still one of the more remarkable things in sports right now. I mean, here's a guy who looks, and shoots, like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly, and not only is he well on his way to his second Big East Player of the Year award in as many seasons, but he has a legitimate case to be the Naismith Award recipient. The post moves, the kamikaze drives to the bucket and the open outside jumper are all one thing, but when he hits the fadeaway 16-footer with the arm of a 6-foot-9 guy in his face, all you can do is smile, shake your head and voice your amazement for the 16th time to the person sitting next to you.
Luke Harangody: I salute you...and then I draft you fourth at a YMCA pick-up game.
The way Samardo Samuels played against the Irish should have everyone excited about watching him for the next two months. This was the type of effort that has to make you believe he's going to be OK in the Big East.
He's still going to struggle around the rim and make us all scream, and he's still going to wrongly put the ball on the floor when he's double-teamed, but he showed Monday that he's going to be up to the task if teams with elite post players opt to let their big man play Samuels straight up with no help.
It'd be foolish for any of us to expect Samuels to get the better of Dejaun Blair - who just may be the best pure center in the country right now - on Saturday, but we now know that he's going to bring the intensity, and if nothing else that should make for some hellacious collisions in the paint.
It's getting to the point where, when he's in the game, I expect Terrence Jennings to block every shot taken inside of ten feet. The biggest enigma on this year's roster showed his most significant signs of life to date, coming up huge on the defensive end and on the glass in the game's waning minutes.
Jennings becoming a reliable contributor may be the most positive thing - aside from all the winning - to happen over the last two weeks. He has a defensive presence and a pair of freakishly long arms that Samuels simply can't match, and though he has a long way to go offensively, if he can simply avoid turning the ball over and finish when he gets easy opportunities around the bucket, then he'll become a huge boon for this team.
It looked to me like T-Will touched the ball before Harangody, but his dunk would have been about .8 seconds after the game was over if the clock hadn't stopped. Still, it was pretty cool.
Almost Dunking Marques Maybin is rapidly approaching hero status. The man is now a perfect 9-0, and the team has dropped the only two games he's missed since his debut in the round-robin tournament bearing his name.
I really want to give ADMM breaks here and there since there are bound to be losses on the horizon, but how can you not give the man the start every night until he tastes defeat for the first time?
However, IF the Cards do win out, I pledge to wear a No. 5 Louisville jersey, and only a No. 5 Louisville jersey, to the Derby this year.
You want that to happen.
Raftery, Bilas and McDonough should call every basketball game broadcast anywhere. Digger Phelps should not be allowed in the country.
The only disheartening thing about the last few minutes of regulation was that the players on the floor couldn't figure out what to do when Brey put Zach Hillesland on Samuels and moved four-foul 'Gody to Clark. Instead of letting Clark post Harangody up or clearing out to let him go off the dribble, Samuels - the player whom the ball had been intended to go to since it was assumed he would still be checked by Harangody - continued to clog up the lane and try to score against a taller player who had fouls to give.
We were out of timeouts at this point, so it was on the five players on the court to recognize the switch and adjust accordingly, and the fact that they didn't was sort of disappointing.
Keep shooting, Jerry. Seriously, you're a good shooter, we can all live you pulling the trigger a few more times every night.
Pitino and I took a swig out of a water bottle at precisely the same moment during the second half. It was pretty magical. I only wish that I could have hugged McGee and Jennings at precisely the same moment he did, too.
The undefeated No. 1 team in the country is coming into Freedom Hall Saturday night. Really, how awesome does it feel to say that? The atmosphere should be incredible, and a victory would cap off - or simply become the new high point - of a pretty remarkable stretch.
Get excited, people. Get real excited.
And one more time for the kids...