Mr. Mike Rutherford combed the catacombs of the Chronicle, devoured the archives of the internet and showcased one of the most important times in the history of Cardinal athletics. It was the week of March 5th, 2012, the Louisville men's basketball team had just wrapped the 2011/2012 regular season by losing four of their last six games, morale in the Ville was at an all-time low due to back to back first round NCAA losses, there was no hope of a 2012 tourney run, and more than just whispers circulated the city discussing whether our Coach Pitino still had enough, or anything left in the tank.
What happened next changed the landscape of the University of Louisville and this city for forever, and laid the groundwork for the meteoric rise of Cardinal athletics. Four straight wins captured the Big East tournament title; four more gave us Louisville's 9th final four and a program/fan base on the brink of something special but not yet realized. As Louisville approaches its next "biggest game of the season" this Saturday against Cincinnati, it comfortably sits in the chair of defending conference champions and almost as impressive, defending national champions with a Hall of Fame maestro calling the shots.
The entire roster and coaching staff, a few lucky Card Chronicle Bird Masks, and hopefully Tom Jurich have decided to sprout facial hair until the Cardinals lose again. Vegas is actually taking bets on what happens first: Pitino's salt and pepper beard disappears or Bobby Petrino loses a football game. The beards may mask the youthful faces of our basketball team, David Levitch might wake up every morning visualizing one whisker instead of shattering the UofL record books, but the new hairy motto cannot hide the fact that our program is in the midst of a new dynasty and Cardinal fans, we are well past the point of no return.
In my 26 year existence, roughly 25 and a half years following the Cardinals, I do not remember a team so dominant, prepared, unrelenting and undefeated against inferior opponents. I don't want to step on Rutherford's toes, and I certainly don't want to anger the masses, but Levitch has us 14-0 when making an appearance and our team is 20-0 in convincing fashion against teams they should beat (UCONN was a great win against a good team). In our four losses against worthy opponents our team has looked confused, bullied, and for lack of a better word, different. Saturday presents another opportunity to change the perception and silence the national mouth pieces. Beat Cincinnati and the Cards can start taking dead aim at a one seed instead of debating a four, five or six. More importantly though, beat Cincinnati so the beards keep festering.
The Bearcats took game one because they out muscled us, out toughed us, out rebounded us, and according to John Madden, scored more points than we did. Taking game two will be a tall task, but can be achieved in simple fashion. Three things must occur for the Birds to claim what they deserve. First and most importantly Louisville must dominate the defensive glass. Cincinnati is not a run and gun team, they are choosy and patient with their shot selection, they rank 234th in points per game and 245th in field goal percentage averaging 43%. If Louisville can limit their second chance opportunities, a convincing double digit victory is not out the question. Secondly, Wayne Blackshear must materialize in a meaningful game. He basically recorded zeroes in the stat book against Cincinnati in the first go around, but a few rebounds, free throws, threes and defensive possessions from Wayne can surely be the difference in game two. Last and certainly not least, is the Cardinal assist to turnover ratio. On January 30, Louisville had a one to one ratio with 13 turnovers and 13 assists. Russ and Chris must take better care of the basketball, and creating for others must flow from the point guard through the center.
The Cardinal basketball dynasty began almost two years ago when the red and black were collectively rescued from the depths of despair by a magical run and a resurrected Rick. Saturday's matchup against Cincinnati is not a make or break game, it is not a magic eight ball that will disclose whether this team is going to make another run at a title, but the final showdown between these two great rivals will be a perfect barometer of how far our bearded Birds have come since January 30th. I am a Cardinal fan so I will therefore predict a win. I believe in the improvement of our team, and therefore I will predict a convincing win.
Louisville was the team of the '80s and Louisville will be the team of this decade too. Beards or no beards, a little bit of Levitch or a Levitch-a-thon, Russ or Harrell, ladies and gentlemen the facts are it doesn't matter how this team does it, it only matters that they will. Welcome to the era of Louisville First, Cardinals Forever, get comfortable because we are going to be here for a while, even long enough to witness Levitch's first shave.
All Hail UofL !!