Saturday, April 4, 2015

Farewell to the Cardinals

Like a lot of Kentucky fans, I can remember what it's like to see Rick Pitino take a team that's not given too much of a chance, and steer them within an overtime of the Final Four.  So I have a lot of sympathy for our neighbors in Louisville, whose beloved Cardinals came so, so close to reaching the Final Four for the third time in four seasons, before falling in overtime to Michigan State last Sunday.

I am not a fan of this generation of Louisville basketball.  It's too violent for my taste -- too much slapping and manhandling, not enough passing and shooting.  But it is certainly effective.  Pitino hasn't had the type of NBA-level talent that the other big national powers enjoy, but he has fused the players he has had with his own intelligence and will.  Most of the time the opponents simply give up, unable to match U of L's intensity.  Northern Iowa, for example, had a great year in the Missouri Valley Conference, and most of the experts gave them a good chance against U of L in the Round of 32.  But Northern Iowa just hadn't seen anything like Louisville's pressure, and the Cardinals rolled to an easy 66-53 victory.  Next up was North Carolina State, who had beaten Louisville (in Louisville) during the regular season, and which was coming off of a big upset of Villanova.  The Wolfpack hung with the Cardinals for awhile, but it's extremely difficult to beat Pitino twice in one year.  Down the stretch, U of L just outhustled and outworked NCSU, putting together a solid 75-65 victory.

Finally, U of L went up against a red-hot Michigan State team for a trip to the Final Four.  The Spartans are a tough and physical team, but even they were caught off-guard by Louisville's sheer will-power.  At the half, Louisville led 40-32 and appeared to be on its way to Indianapolis.  But Michigan State has one of the greatest of all college coaches in Tom Izzo, and Izzo drew upon all of his skills and experience to remind his team that if they would just stay calm and not give up easy baskets, the Cardinals lack of offensive firepower would eventually catch up with them.

And so it proved.  Louisville was offensively challenged all year, and they went ice-cold in the second half against Michigan State.  For the game, U of L made only 35.9 percent of its shots, and only 69 percent of its free throws.  Against a team as good as Michigan State, that just wasn't enough -- especially since the Spartans went 9-23 from behind the arc.  So Sparty won a classic:  76-70 in overtime, and the Cardinals went home after a great year.

For the record, this was the first time since 2010 that Louisville had lost an NCAA Tournament game to a team that was not from Kentucky.  This ended a streak of 15 consecutive NCAA victories against non-Kentucky competition.  That's amazing.

We used to tease Louisville about its years of belonging to the Metro Seven, and of course these days the Cardinals are members of the lordly Atlantic Coast Conference -- along with former Metro teams Florida State and Virginia Tech.  But we still miss the old Metro Conference -- where Louisville won two National Championships -- and we think that in terms of basketball, it was a great fit for the Cardinals.  For us, Louisville vs. Duke or UNC will never have the significance of Louisville vs. Memphis or Louisville vs. Cincinnati.  So each year, we continue to see which of the Metro Seven Teams from the 1980 season -- Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Tulane, Florida State, or Virginia Tech -- finished with the best rating on Ken Pomeroy's site.  It's a pretty impressive list:

2002:  Cincinnati (3)
2003:  Louisville (16)
2004:  Cincinnati (20)
2005:  Louisville (6) (Final Four)
2006:  Memphis (5)
2007:  Memphis (9)
2008:  Memphis (2) (Finalist)
2009:  Memphis (2)
2010:  Florida St. (33)
2011:  Louisville (12)
2012:  Memphis (9)
2013:  Louisville (1) (National Champion)
2014:  Louisville (1)
2015:  Louisville (16)

Total from 2002-2015:
Louisville:  6
Memphis:  5
Cincinnati:  2
Florida St:  1

Louisville finishes with a record of 27-9 overall, and 12-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.  The Cardinals reached the NCAA East Regional Final, where they were beaten by Michigan State in overtime.  They are the fifth of Kentucky's six eligible D-1 teams to be eliminated from this year's National Championship race.  The Kentucky Wildcats are still playing.

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