Saturday, March 29, 2014

Farewell to the Cardinals

We're going to get to the UK/U of L game in a bit, but attention should be paid to the Louisville Cardinals, who have been on one of the greatest runs in their long and proud history.

I never saw the young Muhammad Ali, the spectacular, dancing boxer who could move backwards faster than Sonny Liston could go forward.  By the time I started watching boxing, Ali was in his 30's, and his remarkable grace and speed were not what they had been.  But Ali -- the greatest athlete ever to come out of Louisville -- still had a burning desire and determination to win, and he was still one of the smartest boxers in history.  I have seen him hit over and over, and still refuse to go down.  So even in the twilight of his career, he could gut out brutal fights over guys like Joe Frazier and George Foreman.  It was no longer as pretty as it had been, but it was still effective.

I've thought about the older Ali a lot lately in thinking about Rick Pitino's Cardinals.  I am old enough to remember when Pitino was the future of college basketball.  I remember the 1987 tournament, when Pitino's Providence team (with Billy Donovan playing guard) shocked everyone by using a barrage of three-pointers to reach the Final Four.  I remember the beautiful games from the early 1990's, when Pitino's UK teams would regularly put up more than 90 points in a game.  I thought at the time, and I still think, that those teams played the prettiest basketball I have ever seen.

But Pitino left for the NBA, and then he took the job at Louisville, and he was never quite able to recapture that same magic.  For whatever reason, his Louisville teams didn't have the same level of raw talent he had enjoyed at UK.  There were no Antoine Walkers or Jamal Mashburns walking through that door.  He had good teams -- he got to the Final Four in 2005 -- but he couldn't quite get over the top.  After his 2011 team lost in the first round of the tournament to Morehead State -- and UK went to the Final Four -- I couldn't help but think that Pitino and U of L were no longer the threat they had been.

I still felt that way at the end of the 2011-12 season, when U of L went 10-8 in the Big East and 22-9 overall.  To me, U of L just didn't have enough basketball talent to seriously compete for a title.  But I was wrong.  Pitino didn't have enough talent to play the beautiful style of basketball he had once coached, but he still had his intelligence, his determination, and his remarkable will to win.  He took Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, and a bunch of guys who weren't good enough to get scholarships at Kentucky and he inspired them with his own fierce spirit.  They didn't have much of a half-court offense, but they didn't need one.  They didn't have future NBA stars, but they didn't need them either.  What they had was the most determination I've seen in any basketball team -- with the possible exception of Pitino's "Unforgettables," who lost to Duke in 1992.  After going 22-9 in the 2012 regular season, this is what they did.

1.  They roared through four games in four days to win the 2012 Big East Tournament.
2.  They upset Michigan State and Florida to reach the 2012 Final Four, where they were finally stopped by an unworldly performance by Anthony Davis and an amazing UK team.
3.  They went 26-5 in the 2013 regular season, and then won the 2013 Big East Tournament.
4.  In one of the most physical tournaments ever played, they slugged their way to the 2013 title, grinding out huge, come-from-behind victories over Wichita State and Michigan to put Louisville on top for the first time in 27 years.
5.  Oh, and this remarkable run of success helped persuade the lordly ACC to invite Louisville to join its conference starting in the 2014-15 school year.

And, again, U of L did all of this with a bunch of overlooked players who made up for their lack of talent with speed and determination.  In every game, there would come a point where U of L's opponents would simply crack under the Cardinals' relentless pressure.  Much like Ali's rope-a-dope strategy, it wasn't pretty, but it was brutally effective.

Furthermore, Louisville brought back many of those same players this year.  Russ Smith, the best player on the 2013 team, was back.  So was Luke Hancock, the Most Outstanding Player in last year's Final Four.  While Coach Calipari was struggling to organize a new group of freshmen at UK, Pitino's Cardinals rolled to 26-5 record in the regular season.  Then they crushed three opponents to win the American Athletic Tournament -- their third conference tournament championship in a row.  Wins over Manhattan and Saint Louis brought them back to the Sweet 16.  At this point, U of L -- a team with little recognizable NBA talent -- had gone 22-1 in post-season play in the last three years, and its only loss was to a 2012 Kentucky team regarded as one of the best college teams in recent decades.  It was, and is, one of the most impressive accomplishments I have ever seen.  Both Pitino and his players deserve an amazing amount of credit.

In the end, U of L lost to a UK team that was peaking at the right time of the year.  Significantly, U of L's last five losses of the year were to Kentucky, Memphis, and Cincinnati -- three ancient rivals who were willing to match U of L's manic intensity.  But if nothing else, this U of L squad has left a legacy of success that will be a source of pride for Cardinal fans for years to come.

Louisville finishes with a record of 15-3 in the American Athletic Conference and 31-6 overall.  In their only year in the AAC, the Cardinals tied for the regular-season title and won the tournament title.  They also reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, where they were beaten by the University of Kentucky.  Louisville's departure means that five of Kentucky's six eligible teams have been eliminated from this year's title chase.  The Kentucky Wildcats are now the last team from the Commonwealth to still be dancing.

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