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Louisville 66, Northern Iowa 53: Unlocking the door to possibility

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Before the UC Irvine game, some friends and I were having a discussion about the hope and despair that were both present when it came to Louisville's postseason outlook. It was so easy to stare at U of L's draw and see a clear path for a deep run, but when you tried to imagine the Cards actually taking advantage of this good fortune, it brought you back down to earth a little bit.

How is this going to happen? Is Quentin Snider going to have to start averaging 20 points per game? Are we going to have to start expecting Wayne Blackshear to play the way did against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament every time he steps on the court? Terry Rozier hasn't shot 50 percent in a game since late January, why in the world is that going to magically change now?

Sure, you could imagine a scene like Cardinal players celebrating in Syracuse after locking up their third trip to the Final Four in four years, but the actual types of occurrences that would need to take place in order for that image to have a chance at becoming a reality? Not so much.

The heightened intensity and the immense pressure that comes with every dribble in the NCAA Tournament changes things. Everything happens so quickly this time of the year, and every little thing that we used to be able to dismiss suddenly seems more important.

For example, when Louisville tipped off against Northern Iowa around 3 in the morning 10 p.m. Sunday night, the end of the UC Irvine game felt like it had been in the rearview mirror for about three weeks. That's a far cry from late February when we were all lauding the Cards' ability to handle such a short turnaround to win games against Miami on Saturday afternoon and then at Georgia Tech on Monday night.

Where one good or bad game from an individual player during the grind of conference play in January and February typically means very little, in mid-March it can mean the world. The unrivaled tension pushes every team in the field into a constant fight or flight situation, and sometimes the result is a sense of cohesion or joy that has eluded that squad for the previous four months.

The conversation with my friends on Friday ended with us agreeing that if they had any chance at doing something significant this month, the team needed this phenomenon to work in its favor. Some positive vibes needed to sprout, something major had to change.

That didn't seem to happen against UC Irvine. The energy wasn't great, the offense was bad, the defensive pressure was low, the smiles and the bench intensity weren't there, and just about the only good thing that happened was a victory which bought us all 48 more hours to hope for change. It didn't seem likely, and thus, the end seemed near.

But in the postgame press conference, there was this exchange:

It seems like such an insignificant moment, until you remember that there is no such thing in March.

What Wayne Blackshear actually said wasn't especially poignant or original, but it was the fact that he felt the need to step in and, unprompted, say something reassuring and complimentary of his freshman point guard, and then acted on that instinct, which struck me. Not only would Wayne not have done this two or three years ago, I'm not sure he would have done this two or three weeks ago. And then, of course, there's the comment from the equally reserved Snider, which made all three men at the podium as well as everyone else in the room break into laughter.

Again, this seems like such a trivial thing, but it was the first real sign I saw that there was a chance of something special happening here.

If something extraordinary does happen this weekend in Syracuse, I hope we don't lose sight of Northern Iowa.

The Panthers were a team which demanded Louisville give a type of performance they had seemed incapable of producing for the bulk of the season, including two days earlier. On the flip side, if the Cards were able to give the type of effort necessary to knock off a top 10 team you knew wasn't going to do anything to beat itself, well, then the door into the world of limitless March possibilities was going to be opened once again to U of L fans.

If you're doubting the grandeur of a 13-point win over Northern Iowa in an arena where Panther fans greatly outnumbered those wearing red and black simply because UNI is a mid-major with a lack panache behind its name, I'd like to point you in the direction of Wichita State. The same Wichita State which just throttled Kansas two days after it dropped 81 on Indiana. The same Wichita State which is headed to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years (the one absence coming in a 35-1 season where it was beaten by the eventual national runners-up). The same Wichita State which lost to Northern Iowa by 16 on Jan. 31, and then watched the Panthers hoist the Missouri Valley Tournament championship trophy on the second Sunday of March.

Northern Iowa isn't out of the tournament right now because it played in a conference that didn't test it enough or because it was over-seeded by the selection committee. Northern Iowa is out of the tournament right now because it ran into a Louisville team which played, at the very least, as well as it has all season. It had to, and the fact that it did when faced with that hit-or-get-hit reality is why we're all allowed to daydream about wonderful things at work/class/home between today and Friday.

It certainly all seems to be happening right now.

The proverbial switch being flipped out of nowhere with Wayne Blackshear, who all of the sudden isn't just the soft-spoken veteran who might hit a shot or two to help you win, but the senior captain who's in command and willing to do whatever it takes to keep his college career going. Terry Rozier is back to playing like the guy who led the ACC in scoring for the first five weeks of the season and seemed destined to hear his name called in the first round of this June's NBA Draft. Quentin Snider has taken to the role of freshman floor general in March like some child piano prodigy placing his hands on a set of keys for the first time. In two tournament games, Snider has scored 26 points, hit 4 of 7 from beyond the arc, played 72 minutes, and the turned the ball over just twice. Trez is being Trez, the centers are doing a better job of playing their roles, and even the bench is coming around a little bit.

There are other things, too.

In addition to the Wayne/Quentin moment, take a look at these pair of transcribed interactions:

Q. Wayne, you probably have been criticized more than any player on that roster. How does it feel to have a big game in a moment like this and everything you were able to do today for this team?

BLACKSHEAR: I don't pay attention to anything like that. As long as my teammates and the coaching staff believe in me, I don't care what other people say. So, I take it as it is and I just let my game do the talking.

PITINO: I want to interject something on that question. It's very easy to criticize, it's very easy. It takes no talent at all to criticize. But the coaching staff, every coach that's coached Wayne Blackshear, thinks he's the greatest kid in the world, thinks he's one of the hardest workers. So we have never one time criticized him. We all think we have been tremendously blessed by his presence at the University Of Louisville. So it takes no talent to be a critic.


COACH PITINO: Yeah, you know, with both of them, the interesting thing about both guys, I always tell pro scouts this, I say: Look, I don't have to tell you about their abilities, it's very evident. But what you get with these guys is they don't take a possession off in practice. So, if I'm a pro general manager, I know these guys are going to a pro team, and they have been built to play every possession and not take any time off. So when you're drafting a basketball player, you want that type of heart and that type of attitude. Their skill level is great. Terry has improved dramatically and Montrezl came back and he's become much better at every phase of the game. There's a lot of things you don't notice. The shooting is obvious, but a lot of things -- his ball handling, his passing, his blocking shots, his maturity. So both of these guys I think are going to have -- they had great careers now, but I think they're going to go on and be terrific NBA players because of how hard they play all the time. That's a skill as well as shooting, dribbling, or anything else. I said this about Terry since he's come in, he just acts like a professional every single day. He takes coaching, he takes criticism, he takes it. And Montrezl is a warrior. He is -- you see all these dunks. We see 15 of them every practice where we say: Get out of the way or somebody's getting hurt. And I tell our guys: Just do not get in his way. Just get out of his way, let him dunk the ball and have fun. He's relentless the way he wants to dunk in practice. Even in like we go five lines he want to break a backboard.

TERRY ROZIER: He's not giving himself enough credit either. We don't take a play off because of him. He's a great coach.

The unprompted cut-in to praise or defend one another is becoming a defining characteristic of this group, and that's pretty wonderful. Take that and toss it in with things like the bench consistently being up and excited, guys sprinting over to help fallen teammates up, Jaylen asking Pitino for a hug because he saw Mangok got one and Rick laughing and obliging, the dancing in the tunnel after the game; it feels like all that fun, seemingly frivolous stuff that this season has seemed to be so devoid of is now starting to come in doses.

Even though they're consistently characterized as "the little things," I don't think you can overstate the importance of happenings like the ones mentioned above. Especially when you look at how successful the recent Louisville teams who exhibited them ad nauseam were.

None of this is to say that we should all be making set plans for Indianapolis, or even for Sunday afternoon .... but it all feels possible now, doesn't it? And not just the "well you never know, crazier things have happened" self-encouragement possible after the Syracuse loss in mid-February, but really possible.

Legitimate possibility was the greatest dream any of us could have dared to practice a couple of weeks ago, and now that it's been obtained, we're all allowed to dream even bigger. These are the good times.

I_medium About seven hours before tip on Sunday, these words were posted on this very website:

One of the key tenets of any defensive philosophy like UNI's is preventing penetration, and Northern Iowa's guards -- while they have good size -- are prone at times to getting beaten off the bounce. If ever there were a time for Terry Rozier to wake up from his late season mini slump and morph back into the rim attacking monster he was back in January, this would be it. The long and short of it is, Louisville is going to have to score in the halfcourt, because the Panthers allow just 5.6 transition points per game, and that's the best mark in the country.

I'd say some serious morphing took place, yes.

There was no player wearing purple and gold who had any answer for Rozier. Terry got into the lane at will, he got to the free-throw line nine times, he buried 8 of his 13 shot attempts, and he finished with 7 assists, his second highest total of the season. This was also the first time that Rozier had shot better than 50.0 percent from the field in a game since Jan. 28 at Boston College.

He had a message afterward...

It goes without saying that this couldn't be happening at a better at time, especially when you consider that the Cat Barber/Trevor Lacey backcourt figures to present a much more formidable challenge for Rozier and Snider than UNI's guards could.

I_medium Rozier is also now the Louisville record holder for points in a sophomore season after moving past Butch Beard on Sunday. That is no small feat.

I_medium Louisville did a tremendous job on Seth Tuttle, but you can see why he was able post some of the numbers he did this season. That work in the post was awfully advanced.

Tuttle finished with 14 points and 7 rebounds, but the most important statistic of all was that the Cards allowed him to attempt just 7 shots. Give Mangok Mathiang and Chinanu Onuaku their due credit for that, but don't forget to direct a significant chunk of praise in Trez's direction. He played as intelligent a defensive basketball game as any Card has this season, expertly knowing when to shade over and help and when to fall back.

The Panthers finished with 10 turnovers to 9 assists, they shot just 39.1 percent from the field, and 4 of their 6 made three-pointers (they attempted 19) could have accurately been classified as "challenged." For a team that has struggled throughout this season with both understanding opposing scouting reports and its own defensive philosophies, Louisville did a hell of a defensive job against one of the most efficient offenses in the country.

I_medium It's been praised at length already by this point, but man, that Wayne Blackshear block.

Through two games, Wayne's final NCAA Tournament has gone the exact opposite way the previous four years of the individual portion of his Cardinal career had gone. He has been assertive, he hasn't let any type of adversity have any sort of negative effect on his game, and he's made the two biggest plays of Louisville's two wins.

I'm not sure if I'm the only one who thought it, but when Wayne scored the game-tying basket in the final minute against UC Irvine, I had this horrifying vision of the Anteaters hitting a game-winner and Blackshear finishing his career with 998 career points. One basket short of 1,000. The stories and the tweets would have been too easy. People would have said, "well that figures" or that it was "indicative of a hard luck career," and that would have been it. Instead, here we are, living in a beautiful world where Wayne Blackshear is the 67th 1,000-point scorer in U of L history.

Fast forward a couple of days and Louisville is on the ropes again. Northern Iowa is in the middle of making the run everyone knew was coming, and Blackshear picks the worst time possible to commit the second of his only two turnovers of the game. His errant pass is the catalyst for a 2-on-1 Panther fast break, which seems destined to end in an uncontested lay-up that cuts the Cardinal lead to 4 and sends KeyArena into a frenzy with 3:57 to play. Instead, Blackshear comes flying from out of the picture to notch arguably the signature play of his career, a remarkable block which quiets the crowd and gives the ball back to U of L. Twenty-four seconds later, Terry Rozier hits Montrezl Harrell for an alley-oop dunk which fully restores Cardinal command. Northern Iowa never gets closer than 8 again.

I have rarely been happier to see a Louisville player garner such significant praise in the wake of a big win.

I_medium Here is the "where's my hug, coach?" Jaylen Johnson moment referenced earlier.

In addition to continuing to show flashes of his potential on the court, Jaylen had an awfully impressive night off it. There was this moment, the free-throw line wink, his postgame dancing, and then him leaning forward in his seat while everyone else was standing so that Trez could see him do that "keep eating" spooning food out of a bowl thing after Harrell had drawn a foul.

Guy's got a lot of character, and I enjoy it immensely.

I_medium I'm not sure that Mangok ranking second on the team in field goal attempts after six minutes of play was in the game plan. Of course going with a lineup where David Levitch was running point, Shaqquan Aaron was at the three, Jaylen Johnson was at the four and Anas Mahmoud was at center probably wasn't in there either.

That lineup (or at least the ones with Levitch, Aaron and Johnson out there together), by the way, was +3 over the final 2:11 of the first half. All David Levitch knows is drawing charges and picking up NCAA Tournament assists.

I_medium I'm baffled by the fact that Northern Iowa fans seem to believe they got an unfair whistle on Sunday. With replay showing that the non-over-and-back call on Terry Rozier which incensed KeyArena was actually the correct one, the game's only two egregious calls -- dude rolling around with the ball and getting awarded a timeout, Quentin getting hit with a mystery foul on the play where Trez blocked Tuttle's shot and then get hit in the face -- both went in the Panthers' favor.

I think it was one of those situations where you get really, really mad about something, and then when you find out a short while later that your anger was misplaced, it only makes you more frustrated. UNI fans seemed to let that frustration carryover into every aspect of the game, which is why by the end they would have booed if Tuttle pulling out a knife and stabbing Mangok in the chest would have drawn a whistle.

I_medium Wayne Blackshear will now become the second Cardinal ever to play in four Sweet 16s, and the first to do it in four consecutive seasons (Milt Wagner made four Sweet 16s over five seasons).

I_medium Love this:

The best times, man.

I_medium It blows my mind that a player can look a thousand percent better at the free-throw line when he fully takes any and all leg movement out of the equation, but such is the case right now with Montrezl Harrell. You can never know these things for sure until you've tried everything, so more power to him for the constant guess and check work in the gym.

I_medium Nobody tell the Turner/TBS people that they're using Lamar's logo for us on their graphics. It's working right now.

If this continues and we win a national title, I will buy a Louisville shirt with the Lamar logo. Price isn't an issue.

I_medium No joke, the set where Levitch threw the backdoor pass to Terry for the short baseline jumper was as aesthetically pleasing an offensive possession as we've had this year. Clearly, we've just been playing David out of position all this time.

I_medium At the 9:35 mark in the second half, Northern Iowa's Wes Washpun drove, jump stopped, and pump-faked. Mangok Mathiang, who was there to meet him, did not leave his feet. It felt like a watershed moment.

I_medium The man enjoys March.

I_medium I don't know how many of you have noticed, but Fiery Bench Mike Balado has been in the zone recently. Give FBMB a little bit of extra attention on Friday. He's earned it, and you won't be disappointed.

I_medium Even though Louisville has been experiencing changing styles from its opposition all season long, it still might be task, at least at the beginning of the game, to adjust to NC State's speed and tempo. When the ball is tipped Friday night, it will have been more than two weeks since the Cards faced North Carolina, and the two teams U of L played in between were two of the slower-paced squads they've faced all season. It's certainly going to be a different type of challenge than the two the tournament's opening weekend presented them with.

I_medium Papa Siva was in the building for the game, an event which produced this fantastic tweet by his son.

Hashtag, bring Peyton Sr. to Syracuse.

I_medium I believe, and correct me if I'm wrong on this, that Louisville is undefeated in NCAA Tournament games in which Dillon Avare makes an appearance. Will talk to a guy at ESPN stats and info and get back to you with confirmation.

I'm just joking, it's a really easy statistic to look up on your own and Louisville is, in fact, undefeated in NCAA Tournament games in which Dillon Avare makes an appearance because Sunday was the first time it has happened. Sorry to anyone who was offended by the joke or to anyone who feels hurt over the fact that I misled them about having an acquaintance at ESPN stats and info.

I_medium Sometimes when he gets bored in March, Rick likes to mess with people by throwing Ls in the background of their CBS interviews.

It's just this little thing he does.

I_medium Hopefully next week's announcing team has added a "doesn't get scared shooting free-throws in the tournament because he's a boss" tidbit next to Anas Mahmoud's name for the upcoming round of games. I'd hate to see them get embarrassed the way the announcers on Sunday were.

I_medium This is too much fun, and the fun gets to keep going for at least the next four days. It's special regardless of how it happens, but there's something about unexpected tournament runs that just .... it just makes every breath of air that much more satisfying.

There are 16 teams left that can claim they have still have a chance to win the NCAA Tournament. Louisville is one of those teams. Life ain't bad this week.

I_medium I will probably never have the opportunity to end a game wrap post with this line ever again, and I don't think I'd ever forgive myself if I didn't take advantage.

"And that, Mr. Tuttle, is how you principal."