Fans, coaches, and athletes of every school, team, franchise, and sport have those “If Only” battles through the years, the ones that never came about.
This is the third installment of a here’s-what-never-happened series of indeterminate duration featuring what might have been but never was for various Louisville Cardinal contingents through the decades.
Most always lost in the lament over the extremely disappointing final weeks and eventual meltdown of the ‘78-’79 men’s hoops season is the intriguing encounter ahead, had the Cards not lost to Arkansas to end their season.
The Louisville Legend vs. Larry Legend.
Dr. Dunkenstein and mates against The Hick from French Lick and his fella Hoosiers.
The Cardinals would have battled Larry Bird and the undefeated Sycamores of Indiana State, in that school’s first Dance ever, for the opportunity to compete in their fourth Final Four, third of the Denny Crum Era.
But, history books chronicle how that campaign ended with the proverbial whimper, not a bang.
On the morning of February 9, Louisville stood 21-3 after besting Tulane in New Orleans for a 16th W in a row. The Cardinals were ranked #5 in the country by Associated Press.
Then the fall. U of L’s only wins the rest of the way were over the hapless Billikens of St. Louis, the equally easy to beat Green Wave again, and South Alabama by only three points in the NCAA opener.
They fell to ranked Marquette and Duke, unranked Memphis State and Virginia Tech in Metro tourney, before falling to the Razorbacks in Cincy in the regional semi.
No reason to contemplate the coulda woulda shouldas of that season. Cardinal fans have done that to death. Let’s just say it was as disheartening an end to a U of L season as any other in any sport ever.
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But let’s say, for purposes of contemplation here, U of L had overcome Eddie Sutton’s Razorbacks, featuring Sidney Moncrief, Scott Hastings and a young baller named US Reed, who would become an arguably more indelible ink stain on Cardinal lore a few seasons later.
As things played out, #1 Indiana State bested Arkansas by a deuce, DePaul by the same margin, before falling to Magic and Sparty in what it is universally heralded as “the most watched NCAA championship game” in history.
Indiana State, toward whom Billy Packer never passed up an opportunity to dismiss, featured another future NBAer Carl Nicks, along with fellow starters Alex Gilbert, Brad Miley and Steve Reed.
Bird put up 29 ppg, 15 rpg and 5 apg. Bill Hodges’ Sycamores’ average scoring margin was 14 points. Though their quality of opposition wasn’t top shelf, they had conquered Purdue in Mackey, never an easy feat.
And, had beaten the globally regarded Soviet Union team in a preseason exhibition, one of less than a handful of schools to achieve that.
Plus State, led by one of the all-time greats, proved themselves legit.
Would, given the opportunity, Louisville have bested the team from Terre Haute?
Uh, I don’t think so.
Despite all the talent, and the truth that it jelled a season later for U of L’s first title, something was seriously amiss with that Cardinal contingent. At least from mid February on.
Of his many talents, Larry Bird’s ability to make those on the court with him play better was arguably his most significant. He was really good. He knew he was really good. It fostered his teammates to play a step or two beyond.
Which is not to mention, in State’s first tourney game, they blasted by 17 the same Virginia Tech squad the Cards just lost to.
But a season-ending L to that iconic Indiana State team would have been more palatable, it says here, than the five of eight meltdown etched in the record books.
— c d kaplan