Final Four Buildup: Introducing The Louisville Cardinals

TheSportsNotebook’s buildup to the Final Four will have consist of a day focused on each team, as we look at their personnel, the arc of their season and their Final Four history. Today we’ll start with the biggest surprise in New Orleans, the 4th-seeded Louisville Cardinals, winners of the West Regional in Phoenix.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino relies on a six-man rotation for the lion’s share of the minutes and it’s not a particularly big  team. The one exception to that is 6’11” center Gorgui Deng, who averages nine rebounds a game. After Deng, the next tallest player is Chane Behanan. At 6’6” Behanan collects seven boards a game. The perimeter, the clear strength of this team is led by point guard Peyton Siva, whose six assists a game average is extremely high for the college level, particularly given there’s no dominant scorer that he can rack up easy assists with. Siva is aided by the two Smiths, Russ and Chris. The former, a sophomore who was outstanding in the West Regional this past weekend, is best suited to make plays off the dribble. Chris is a senior and shoots 40 percent and up from both inside and outside the three-point line. And the one player not mentioned is swingman Kyle Kuric, whose 13 ppg are the highest on the team. The Cardinals’ asset is their ability to manage game tempo, with the liability being a lack of three-point shooting beyond Chris Smith.

The Cards came out to a flying start, winning their first six games prior to Thanksgiving. While there weren’t marquee opponents, Pitino’s team did beat Butler, plus Ohio and Long Beach State, the latter two of which made the NCAA Tournament. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the ‘Ville won six more, including overtime against Vanderbilt and a blowout of Memphis. At 12-0, they suffered a disappointing home loss to Georgetown and fell to Kentucky in the two schools’ now-traditional New Year’s Eve Day game. But there was no reason to read anything deeper into either loss. The alarm bells had to be sounded on a stretch from January 3-16, when the team went 2-3. Losing at Marquette was no shame, although at the time just how good MU was going to be wasn’t as clear. A double overtime loss to Notre Dame at home fell in the category of disappointing, but not devastating. But a stunning 31-point loss at Providence made everyone take notice. The two wins in this timeframe were DePaul and St. John’s, not exactly the medicine that Cardinal Nation needed to feel better.

Pitino got his team to bounce back and they won six straight, including a blowout of UConn and a big come-from-behind at West Virginia at a time when the Mountaineers were clearly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. They looked poised for a strong finish to the regular season, when another skid hit. Louisville lost four of its last six. Two of the games were against Syracuse, so a fluke of scheduling can account for some of it. They lost at Cincinnati, another game where the home team needed to win. This was also a game where my uncle was seated courtside right behind the Cardinal bench, although he declined my suggestion of sticking his head into the huddle. Louisville also lost to a South Florida club that needed every win it could get. Individually you could explain away the losses. Collectively they added up to problems, especially when one of the wins was against DePaul and it took overtime to get it done.

The Big East Tournament was a smashing success, as the Cards beat Seton Hall, Marquette, Notre Dame and Cincinnati in succession to cut down the nets. I would argue this wasn’t all that shocking. If you thought Syracuse would get beat, the Cards were as good a bet as anyone, particularly given that Pitino’s had success in this event before, winning it as recently in 2009. TheSportsNotebook even took a flyer and predicted Louisville to win this tournament, showing every blind squirrel has its acorn, every dog has its day and every rose has its thorn (I’m not sure how that last one applies, but it keeps the rhythm going). The conference tournament win set the stage for the NCAA run that included wins over Davidson and New Mexico on the first weekend, followed by beating #1 seed Michigan State and then Florida in Phoenix to claim the Final Four berth.

History in the world of TheSportsNotebook starts in 1976, the modern era of sports, and especially the NCAA Tournament, since it begins the post-Wooden era. Here are Louisville’s appearances on the game’s biggest stage…

1980 (Indianapolis): Back when the Final Four was still in places like old Market Square Arena, Louisville coach Denny Crum got his first national title at the expense of UCLA, where Crum had been an assistant under Wooden. Louisville was led by Darrell Griffith, also known as “Dr. Dunkenstein” and they turned a 50-45 deficit into a 59-54 championship.

1982 (New Orleans): The first domed Final Four and the first one televised by CBS—come to think of it, maybe this should start the modern era. Louisville won an exciting Mideast Regional that’s chronicled in my short book Memories Of March Madness, before losing a tough game to a very good Georgetown team in the Saturday semi-final.

1983 (Albuquerque): The Mideast Regional they came out of was the best regional weekend ever played, and their Final Four loss to Houston was one of the  most electrifying dunkfests ever put on—by both sides. The Cards came up short 94-83, but everyone was breathless after watching the rapid-paced rim-rattling session.

1986 (Dallas): Louisville won its most recent national title in a great game over Duke, making its first Final Four appearance under Mike Krzyzewski. The run of both teams to reach the title game is a topic in Memories of March Madness.

2005 (St. Louis): This one came under Pitino and has fond memories for me. I took Louisville to win the national title as a #4 seed and the fact they made it to St. Louis marked this the only time I’ve ever had a chance to win our 100-plus person bracket pool when the Final Four started. Louisville lost to Illinois, but I’m grateful they gave me some hope. Oh, and they also beat West Virginia to reach the Final Four as part of an extraordinary run of regional final games that year. Continuing the utterly shameless promotional routine this otherwise insightful article has taken, read all about it when you buy Memories of March Madness  for $2.99.