Now that the smoke from downtown Indianapolis and inside the Banker's Life Fieldhouse has almost certainly cleared and the hot take flames have slowly begun dying down, I've decided to take a swift look back at the 2016-17 Louisville Cardinals basketball season - a season with more ups and downs than a Kings Island roller coaster. But in between the exhilarating and intoxicating (insert win over Kentucky) as well as the painful and depressing (insert loss to Michigan) lies what I believe to be the one primary reason that Louisville will now watch the rest of this year's NCAA tournament from the heavily guarded confines of Minardi Hall and not from the sidelines of the Kansas City Sprint Center: Louisville's head scratching inability to put its opponent away but its innate ability to become as tight as a pair of Kim Kardashian yoga pants in the clutch.
If you've seen the Karate Kid (the original, I hated the remake), then you know that the Cobra Kai's Johnny Lawrence got complacent after dominating early and lost to an inferior Daniel Larusso.
Similarly, in the movie Gladiator, the overly assured Commodus assumed Maximus was dead only to fall at his feet months later without a pulse.
And perhaps the most relevant example: In the film Hoosiers, the studs from South Bend underestimated Hickory's grit and focus and thus traveled home with a stunning loss to a lesser team.
Up by 9 points almost mid-way through the 2nd half this past Sunday, Louisville lead the plausibly hottest team in men's college Basketball and looked to be in a prime position to drop the hammer, coast into a Sweet 16 birth and send the darling Wolverines back to Ann Arbor. It was around this point in the game that the Cards managed to get 3 different looks from the three point stripe, two of them virtually wide open. Unfortunately, as was the story in the majority of UofL's previous losses, none of them dropped. Being at the game in person, I distinctly remember turning to my Dad and saying something along the lines of "I think we may have just let a golden opportunity slip by."
I'm no Nostradamus, but I regrettably turned out to be correct for a change. Michigan methodically dwindled away at the Cards lead in the final 10 minutes of the contest and finally seized all the available momentum late by making one big shot after another. UofL's inability to score consistently on the offensive end coupled with the fact that Michigan was getting to the foul line late (and actually making their free throws) was the nail in the coffin for the Cards.
UofL clad fans both near and far bewildered.
Expectations not met.
Heads scratched at a feverish rate.
For what temporarily looked to be a Louisville Basketball team that could realistically crash the Final Four in Phoenix, Sunday's second round loss was both disappointing and painful for Louisville fans. Not only did the Cards manage to lose as an NCAA Tournament two seed for the first time in school history but it did so to a team that, frankly, it should have beaten. Sound familiar? And fresh off the heels of the school's first ever self-imposed NCAA Tournament, it's my firm belief that roughly any and every one linked to the program expected and at a minimum hoped for a better post season run. Fans, players, administration, coaches and even the players themselves could all unite in this bucket of dismay.
Earlier in the season, I wrote a piece focusing on something that over time would become a commonly discussed topic for this team - basketball IQ (or lack thereof). And while to this day I believe it to have been the biggest weakness of the 2016 - '17 squad, I think the bigger issue four days ago was the fact that the Cards were never able to develop any type of killer instinct. Down the stretch virtually everyone on the floor resembled VJ King - tense, skittish and playing not to lose instead of playing to win.
Losing to Michigan in the second round isn't the worst thing on the planet Earth. And losing to Michigan while thousands of obsessed UK fans awaiting the following game cheered wildly for the maize and blue isn't the apocalypse either. Sure, the scene on Sunday was unsettling for all of us as Card fans. But in the midst of all the negative post game chatter, the future may never be brighter than it potentially could be next season.
I know, I know.....the tournament is still two weeks from completion and here I am speculating on what could be to come and why it makes me smile just contemplating it. But, that's all we as Louisville fans have left at this juncture unless of course you count pulling for UCLA and potentially anyone else the rival down I-64 may play the rest of the way.
Rick Pitino has had a few really deep and loaded rosters during his coaching tenure at The Ville. If the nucleus of Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel both decide to stay one more year with the returning players this roster offers in addition to an incoming recruiting class that may potentially feature one starter in Malik Williams, then it will be Pitino's best overall team since replacing fellow Hall of Famer Denny Crum. But just having depth and raw talent simply won't be enough. One could argue that the 2009 Louisville team that featured the likes of Terrance Williams, Earl Clark et al was as good as any Pitino has coached at UofL. However, that team lacked synergy, consistency and at times, the drive to put teams away.
Because I can, I'm choosing to imagine the following prior to next fall.........
- A senior in Quentin Snider who spent all summer working on defense
- A heavier and close-fisted Anas Mahmoud who scoffs at the notion of blowing open dunks
- A more confident VJ King ready to enjoy his longer leash from Coach P
- A returning scoring tandem of Mitchell and Adel to solidify an offensive attack
- A transfer who pays big dividends with his toughness in Dwayne Sutton
- A freshmen in Malik Williams who lives up to the hype
- A return of the short and dumpy Cardinal Bird mascot
Scary in a way isn't it? Only time will tell how much of the aforementioned comes to fruition. In the meantime, it's time to shift some focus to a baseball team that as of this moment is still #1 in the country, a women's team about to lock horns with in the Sweet 16 with a #1 seeded Baylor squad and last but not least a football team that will be led by a Heisman trophy winner as it sets out to make up for last season's late shortcomings.