If you were looking for an indication that this team, at the very least, still has the potential to do something special this month, I'm not sure you could have gotten a better one than Wednesday's night's performance in Dallas.
Playing in as hostile an environment (word from inside the building is that unspeakable things were shouted pretty consistently for two hours) as you could imagine, Louisville took the best opening shots a team playing its biggest home game in three decades could manage, and the Cards didn't flinch.
More impressive than overcoming a 14-point first half deficit to lead by two at the break and at least equally as impressive as actually winning the game by 13 was the way U of L reacted when it looked like it might blow another sizable second half advantage.
With no momentum on their side and a 7-point second half advantage cut to one with less than eight minutes left, the Cards desperately needed someone to make a play. As he has more times than not in games played in the month of March, Luke Hancock answered the bell. He perfectly sized up an overzealous defender and goaded him into the classic "shot fake and get fouled for three" Luke move which has been noticeably absent in recent months. The play silenced the crowd heading into the TV timeout and SMU never managed to make a major dent on the Cardinal lead going forward.
Wednesday night was as close to a no negative evening as you can get at this point in the season. Just about everybody played well, they went through some things that forced them to grow closer, and they thrived in an environment that was either going to break them or make them stronger.
It officially feels like March in Louisville.
In what has to be one of the 10 (or so) best individual performances in a half by a U of L player, Russ did what senior All-Americans are supposed to do in March and placed the team saddle squarely on his back.
He scored 14 points in a little over three minutes, became the first Cardinal in 15 years to attempt at least six three-pointers and not miss one (one of which came from the "U" on the SMU logo), and when the 'Stangs became resigned not to let him alone beat them, he tapped into that "New Russ" mentality and made a handful of great passes to put the game out of reach.
Also, he was throwing up the entire time.
Please note the number of middle fingers being directed at Puking Russ in the background. I am very happy that we won this game.
At halftime, I was already planning an extensive post on how Russ needs keep some of the new assets he's developed, but how this team needs him to become more of the old, score-first Russ if it wants to make another Final Four run. I don't think that post will be necessary.
Outside of his defensive lapses in the early part of the game, Russ was everything this team needed him to be Wednesday night. I get that he's not going to bury five plus contested three-pointers every time out, but I think he needs to look for buckets in the same fashion that he did against SMU. Attack the rim, take outside shots in rhythm, find the open teammate when defenses devote too many guys to keep you from scoring, and defend your ass off. This was the Russ Smith we saw in Dallas on March 5 and hopefully the one we'll see in Dallas on April 5.
Chris Jones revealed to the media after the game that he has been playing with a heavy heart since learning last weekend that his step-brother and close friend Demetrius Ray had been shot and killed. The murder took place in Jones' hometown of Memphis as the Cards were playing the Tigers at the FedEx Forum.
Chris Jones on recent murder of his brother: "I just thank Louisville fans for keeping my head up....I've been in my room crying a lot."
— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) March 6, 2014
Jones responded by playing one of his best games of the season, scoring 21 points and snatching six steals.
This is a good reminder that there are far more important things than basketball, and that you never know the types of things these kids are dealing with off the court. Our thoughts and prayers are with Chris and his family during this time.
In the past year, the Louisville Cardinals have gone to the White House to visit President Obama, taken locker room selfies with Bill Clinton and now won a game in Dallas with George W. Bush sitting courtside. Regardless of your political affiliation or how you feel about these men, that's pretty cool. Hashtag, America's team.
Apparently Rick Pitino sent Luke Hancock over to tell George W. Bush hello for him before the game, an act which ended with Luke and W bro-hugging. Because of course it did.
When you factor in all of the extenuating circumstances, this win just gets more and more impressive.
Pitino talked after the Memphis loss about needing to get Montrezl Harrell more breaks, but I'm not sure that's a realistic option at this point. This team needs Trez on the court as close to 40 minutes per night as possible, because he's playing about as well as any forward in the country.
I'm not going to post the reverse alley-oop GIF again, but you are more than welcome to visualize it....right now.
Louisville was attempting to do the charitable (I refuse to say "classy") thing and hold the ball until the clock ran out, and it was SMU's Sterling Brown who chose to keep playing by stealing the ball from Hancock and attempting to dunk on the other end. You could tell it pissed off Luke, who refused to concede the basket and hustled down to the other end to keep Brown from scoring. He then raced the ball back to the other end of the court -- while his body language was screaming pretty clearly that he intended to dunk on the Mustangs himself -- where he found Trez for the authoritative final basket.
The act resulted in a hoard of hateful tweets sent in Harrell's direction, as well as a subsequent public defense by Hancock (via Instagram):
"You wanna play till the buzzer, we will play till the buzzer" is without doubt one of the best quotes of the season.
Don't start no stuff, there won't be no stuff.
Louisville now finds itself in a position where beating Connecticut on Saturday will guarantee the Cards at least a share of the AAC's regular season title and lock up the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament (even though I think we're all in agreement that we'd rather play at night on Thursday and the late game on Friday).
As always seems to be the case on Senior Day around here, there will be plenty at stake.
For the second straight game, Stephan Van Treese had about as misleading a stat line as there can be. He finished with no points (okay, the missed lay-up was bad), three steals and just four rebounds, but I counted no less than five "Steves" (rebound assists), and he did a tremendous job on defense of switching out and preventing back-cuts.
My new goal for this season has become getting Pitino to start casually referring to Steves without any explanation to the rest of the media.
"I thought Stephan played really well. Now he only got credited with four rebounds, but I think he finished with six Steves. Six or seven. Kenny do you know? Kenny doesn't know, we'll have to go back and look at the stats. But that's one of the things we've gotta get Montrezl doing more. He's gotta start getting more Steves when he can't come down with the rebound."
I have big dreams.
As exciting as this win was, you can't help but wonder what would have happened had Nic Moore not been in foul trouble, because SMU is about a thousand percent better when he's on the court. That said, his time on the bench was the product of his own foolishness, just as Russ Smith's was against Memphis.
Even though Terry finished with no points, it's not like he did anything especially bad, he just missed a couple of open looks and got in foul trouble. Really, there's no one who you could point to and say they played poorly on Wednesday, and that's as encouraging as anything.
Puke is the new beard.
That's gross, I'm sorry.
Going back to Chris Jones for just a second. I don't think anyone has a problem with him taking uncontested or lightly contested three-pointers that come out of the offense. He's definitely proven himself to be a good enough shooter to do that. I think where the issue lies is with the fadeaway, one leg up jumpers that come early on in a possession, and far too often at crucial moments in games. Chris was tremendous on Wednesday, but he still pulled that move one or two times too many (it was two).
That said, the good certainly far outweighed the bad when it came to CJ against SMU. He was the biggest reason U of L finished with 17 steals, he hit key shots both when the Cards were ahead and when it looked like they might get blown out, and he was a perfect 5-for-5 from the line.
For the haterzzz.
Speaking of improved free-throw shooting, Montrezl Harrell's shots have been 10 times better in the last two games even though his form looks about 10 times worse. It's like the staff ran out of ideas and just said, "try doing everything you're not supposed to do and let's see what happens."
Harrell now barely staggers his feet, he doesn't bend his legs at all, both his elbows fly and the rotation of the ball is super funky. The shot are also going in far more often than they were before, and when he misses he's not missing nearly as badly.
It might be my favorite development of the past week.
YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENS LARRY?
— Chris Stone (@ChrisStone01) March 6, 2014
If you're lost, go rent The Big Lebowski. I would be willing to bet that it's available at both Roadrunner and Red Giraffe.
If you have the capability, go back and watch the opening minutes of the game just to see the guy scream "LET'S GO PONIES!!!" after SMU's second dunk. There is a 100 percent chance that this was the most forceful a sentence ending with the word "ponies" has ever been voiced.
Pitino made all the right joking comments after the game about SMU not being a Catholic school and there obviously being alcohol served at the game, but you know (and you could kind of tell) there were some more vindictive thoughts going through his head as the evening was unfolding. I'm not going to spell out what I believe they were, so you can just imagine them however you want to.
I love our head coach.
As sad as it's going to be not playing in Madison Square Garden next week, if Louisville wins the AAC Tournament, you could make the case that they will have faced a tougher semifinal/final combination than any of the ones it faced the past three years (sorry, Notre Dame) in the Big East tourney. Those two games (if they happen), figure to be as intense as any conference tournament games in recent memory, especially when you consider U of L's history with Cincy, Memphis and UConn, and with the game they just played against SMU.
It's the best time of the year and the mighty Cardinals are once again right in the thick of things. There are few things better.