February may be the shortest month of the year, Cardinal fans sometimes wish it'd last forever, and Rick Pitino's Louisville teams annually become everyone's favorite valentine. February is the turn for home in college basketball and Coach Pitino is the best in the business at priming his thoroughbreds for the home stretch. The 2014/2015 Cardinals are a top ten team in position to capture the ACC in their inaugural season, but the question remains: are these Birds contenders or pretenders?
I find the food channel extremely entertaining and even though Guy Fieri puts too much time and work into his interesting appearance, Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives is one of my favorite shows. Watching the chefs combine everything and the kitchen sink to create some of those fan favorites leaves my mouth watering and has inspired me to do some cooking of my own.
On the menu today is a championship team. Ingredients are as follows (serving sizes can be altered depending on user taste): premier guard play, elite athleticism, dominant interior presence, national player of the year winner or finalist, first round draft pick(s), and current or future hall of fame coaching. You may feel differently, but I had to go back to 1985 and Villanova to find a team that didn't possess most if not all of the qualities listed above. Ed Pinckney was outstanding, but if a shot clock existed in 85' Georgetown would have steamrolled the Wildcats.
Now that we have the recipe for the secret sauce it seems appropriate to evaluate whether these Cardinals fulfill the championship ingredient list, or did Coach Pitino leave a few items off the grocery list. Premier guard play? Rozier and Jones are one of Louisville's best tandems of any era, check. Elite athleticism? I don't want to get in the way of a Harrell dunk, hard to believe there are shiftier or quicker guards then Rozier or Jones, and Wayne can elevate from time to time, check. Dominant interior presence? Harrell is considered one of the best power forwards in basketball and is a projected lottery pick, check. National player of the year? Rozier should get more press; Harrell is in the conversation, check. First round draft picks? Rozier and Harrell, check. Lastly, Coach Pitino is one of the most successful tournament coaches of all time and is an active Hall of Fame stroller of the sideline, check.
Sounds like butterflies and rainbows for Card Nation and our team is almost a lock to bring home banner four? However, aside from Kentucky, who according to most would make the Eastern Conference Playoffs and win a gold medal at the Olympics, every team in college basketball has its share of red flags and weaknesses.
Louisville's problems are obvious and at this moment there doesn't seem to be a cure. Louisville is not a great shooting team and its three best players shoulder a heavy burden every night to carry the Cardinals to victory. If Jones, Rozier, or Harrell have a rough night it is almost a guarantee Louisville would be defeated by a top 25 team. Can Louisville's big three carry this team all the way to Indianapolis?
As a fan and a realist the answer is yes. College basketball is very even this year, as it was a year ago, and there isn't one team in my eyes that stands tall above the rest the way UofL did in 2013 or UK in 2012. For inspiration, travel back in time to the year 1983. Coach Crum had arguably one of his best and most athletic Cardinal squads, but it was a team with almost zero depth that only had seven guys play significant minutes.
Lancaster Gordon and Milt Wagner are arguably Louisville's second best guard tandem behind Eaves and Griffith. The McCray brothers were undersized forward/centers, but as tough and athletic as anyone in basketball. Charles Jones and Billy Thompson fulfilled their duties alongside the McCrays by battling and bruising each and every opponent. Lastly, Denny Crum had all but wrapped up future Hall of Fame status by collecting three final fours and one championship in his first ten seasons.
Louisville fell short of the title in 1983, but many argue that had the Final Four been played at a normal altitude Coach Crum would've defeated Houston and then Valvano's Wolfpack. The 2014/2015 Cardinals share qualities with 1983, have the makings of a championship team, and Terry Rozier has an opportunity to be remembered as a Kemba Walker, Shabazz Napier, or Derrick Rose (just don't miss those free throws Terry).
There are surprises in store and I am not ready to count out an unsung hero, but Louisville's big three will have to continue to do the heavy lifting. February is for the Birds, and Louisville looks to stick their noses out in front heading down the stretch as they face the best team remaining on their schedule. Pretenders or contenders? Virginia is the measuring stick, and as for an answer, count these Cards as contenders.
All Hail UofL !!