by Josh Weinfuss
IU NCAA Final Four Student News Bureau
NEW ORLEANS – Rick Pitino didn’t mince his words.
The Louisville Cardinals had just ended their regular season with a loss to Syracuse on March 3. Sitting at 22-9, they were almost a lock to play in the NCAA tournament, regardless of how they fared in the Big East Championship, which tipped off four days later in New York City. But Louisville was floating toward a dangerous threshold.
The Cardinals started 12-0 and then went 10-9 in the final two-and-a-half months of the season. Playing in the NCAA tournament might have been a guarantee, but once there, winning surely wasn’t.
In the Carrier Dome on that Saturday night, Pitino told the Cards they were the only ones in control of their fate.
“He told us, ‘Your legacy lies in your own hands right now. You want to be remembered as a team that gets knocked out in the first round of the tournaments and you want to lose on a Senior Night?’ ” senior Chris Smith said.
It was the spark Louisville needed.
The Cardinals reached this weekend’s Final Four with a run that looked eerily similar to the one Connecticut made a year ago. They won the Big East tournament. They then ran through the NCAA tournament to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2005, when Louisville was a member of Conference USA.
A Big East team struggling to finish the season gets hot and goes on a run to the Final Four.
The story has already been written.
Well, it’s being written again by Louisville.
Last season, Connecticut struggled to a 4-7 record in its final 11 games, including losses in its final two contests. But then UConn captured the wonderment of college basketball by winning the Big East championship in five games and the NCAA national championship six games later to finish the season on an 11-game winning streak.
If Louisville wins its third national title Monday night, it would have done so with 10 consecutive victories.
“I don’t think their run made it easier for us to do it this year,” Smith said.
Pitino’s speech might have sparked the Cardinals and a players-only meeting may have put everyone on the same page, but root of this year’s run comes in Louisville’s 18-game schedule.
“You play against so many different teams and styles of play in the Big East that you’re really prepared for any kind of style — fast, slow, press [or] not, zone or whatever,” senior Kyle Kuric said. “We get a lot of different feels from a lot of different teams. So we’re pretty battle tested coming [into] this tournament.”
Throughout Louisville’s locker room in the bowels of the Superdome, the Cardinals were in agreement. Playing against all the styles in the Big East led them to the Big Easy.
They saw it all this season, from Syracuse’s two-three zone to South Florida slowing it down to Georgetown sealing off the 3-point line Ziploc tight.
“If you play in the Big East you won’t face anything that scares you,” sophomore center Gorgui Dieng. “They’re going to get you ready for the tournament.”
The Big East Championship gave Louisville more time to study.
In the quarterfinals, the Cardinals faced a bruising Marquette team that featured conference player of the year Jae Crowder, only to face a Notre Dame led by center Jack Cooley in the semifinals and Cincinnati’s ferocity in the finals.
“The Big East tournament is the toughest tournament in America,” Smith said. “If you can win that tournament, you will have success and a good chance of going pretty far in the NCAA tournament because [of] the physicality and the preparation required for each game in our league.”
In the NCAA tournament, despite playing a close game against New Mexico in the third round, Louisville wasn’t caught off guard by much.
Junior guard Peyton Siva said playing West Virginia and Pittsburgh prepared Louisville for Michigan State in the West Regional Semifinals because the Spartans rebound “like crazy.” And in the Regional Final, Florida played like Cincinnati because “they shoot the ball from all four positions.”
But Saturday, the Cardinals face a team they can’t draw on previous experiences to prepare for. Kentucky’s different.
“They don’t play like anybody we’ve seen,” Siva said. “They can score at all five positions. They’re a threat at all five positions. They’re just a great team.”
Siva didn’t mince his words.