By Andrew Phelps
Pure ecstasy, an imagined and deserved dream that was 27 years in the making, a championship delivered to a city and fan base that had waited so patiently to reclaim its spot on top of the college basketball world. Last season was perfect in every aspect and I thoroughly enjoyed the confidence of knowing Louisville possessed the best team, nothing stood in the way of a title except for themselves, the Cardinals delivered and elation ensued that will last for a lifetime.
Forget the past and one shall be doomed to repeat its failures. Facts are a funny thing, people choose to ignore them, dispose of them without regard, and even argue with undeniable truth. The 2013-14 basketball season began with such promise for Louisville; they have embodied the heart of a champion through an obstacle laden 31 game schedule, overcoming injuries, dismissals, late game struggles, personal tragedy, and a roller coaster media that is fast to kiss their tailfeathers and even faster to scorn any accomplishment.
The facts are definite, and you the reader and fans can choose to make of them what you will. Our current edition of Cardinals amassed the exact same record as the defending champions at the completion of the regular season, 26-5. Louisville, due to a coin flip, earned a two seed in their conference tournament and Louisville ventured to New York as a two seed just one year ago. The Cardinals finished this season ranked a consensus number five, one spot behind their final 2013 ranking. Our beloved defending champions defeated just four top 25 teams last season (ranked when the game was played) and the current ragamuffins have downed three ranked opponents. Peyton's bunch won 10 of their last 11, Russ's band of "overrated's" won 9 of their last 10. Lastly, but most importantly, the kids completing this roster and competing with everything they have are just as memorable, overlooked, accomplished, fun, personable and Cardinals forever.
As a partial observer, but with a consistent understanding of reality, I am 100% comfortable with proclaiming I do not possess the same level of calm or confidence this season. However, it isn't because I think these Cardinals aren't among the national championship favorites, I simply have no faith or understanding of the rest of college basketball. I knew Louisville was the best last season because we had the best point guard, best center, best power forward duo, the best coach, we won the best conference, and most importantly there wasn't a team out there that appeared to be able to infringe on the Cardinal destiny.
Put 35 balloons labeled with the top 35 teams on a dart board, throw four darts blindly, and voilà, that group would have as good a chance to make it to Dallas as any "expert" pick. With so many unknowns, a list of variables a mile long and worst of all a season showcasing the most inconsistent referees in recent memory, the Cardinals will and must focus on only those factors they can control.
Initially and primarily, Louisville will miss out on a repeat run if the free-throw woes continue. I have accepted that Montrezl Harrell is not Milt "Ice" Wagner and each of you should accept that truth as well. However, teams are going to foul the bejesus out him in the postseason to make him earn his ferocity at the line and Harrell must answer the bell with 60% or better. Harrell is not the issue though; our guards have got to stop missing free throws. The amount of points left at the line recently by Russ, Luke, Rozier, and Jones is inexcusable and mind numbing. If these Cardinals fall short of their goal I guarantee free throw shooting will be a tumultuous reason why.
Secondly, and almost more important, HOF Rick and the Cardinals must continue to put emphasis on defensive rebounding. Louisville is bound to run into a team that has a hot night from the floor, we are going to be blessed with terrible officiating, and odds are we might have an off shooting night. The consistent and relentless defense will never subside, but to cover up these potential hurdles and obstacles, Louisville must commit all that they possess to limiting the opposition to one shot or less per possession. With Louisville's offensive firepower and improving defense, dominating defensive rebounding will all but assure a fourth national championship.
March and April is an uplifting, enjoyable, and scintillating time period throughout the country each and every year. The sun returns, fresh air fills our lungs, frightening pale citizens and albinos are unmistakable, and most importantly March Madness grips us by throat for four exhilarating and excruciating weeks. Louisville preserves a chance and has accepted the opportunity to accomplish a feat only achieved by three other schools in the modern era of basketball. Rise and repeat was the initial slogan. As postseason play begins Thursday, this team has taken on a new identity and plays with a renewed hunger. Dallas will be waiting for Louisville in 2014, doubters beware, the Cardinals are hitting their stride, and Russ Smith & Co. are eager to once again shock the world. Welcome to the birth of the second Year of the Cardinal, see ya April 7th.
All Hail UofL !!