NCAA Final Four, why is Louisville the team to beat

Finally it’s time for the Final Four, from all the 347 teams of the Division I there are only 4 left and each one is willing to everything just to come back to their campus with the National Title. Now let’s take a look to one of these four teams, the one that the person who’s writing thinks should be considered the team to beat: Louisville.
Louisville is close to finish in the best way an amazing season in which it has proved to be a real powerhouse winning both the Big East regular season (alongside with Georgetown and Marquette) and tournament title. But let’s start from the beginning.

SEASON JOURNEY
Louisville opened the season in a great way winning twelve of the first thirteen games of the season. The only loss has arrived against Duke by only six points, in a game that the Cardinals played without the then-injuried Gorgui Dieng, the starting center and actually the only real big man of the team whose absence allowed the to Duke’s big men combo formed by Mason Plumlee and Brian Kelly to dominate and take the Blue Devils to the W. In the most important moment of the regular season Pitino’s team started to play his best basketball and managed to win four Big East games in a row reaching also the first place in the AP Ranking. However, just when everything seemed to go in the right direction the first conference loss came, a two point loss against Syracuse. It was a game that demolished the Cardinals’ morale and led to other two consecutive losses against Villanova and Georgetown. In a moment, the season that appeared to be the right one to get to the National Title started to take a turn for the worst but it’s in these difficult moments that a Rick Pitino’s team give its best: of the last regular season games Louisville managed to win every game with the only exception of the loss against Notre Dame, a game famous for his five OTs that makes it the longest one in Big East history. This incredible streak of ten wins of the last eleven games guaranteed the Cardinals the Big East regular season title (shared with Marquette and Georgetown) and made Louisville one of the teams to beat in the conference tournament, later won by the Cardinals after eliminating the same teams that beated Siva and teammates in the regular season: Villanova, Notre Dame and Syracuse, everyone defeated at last by twelve points. Cardinals dominated also the individual awards of these two conference competitions. Dieng was voted the Best Defender in the Big East and was also named All-Big East First Team just like his teammate Russ Smith, whereas Peyton Siva was named 2013 American Eagle Outfitters BIG EAST Scholar-Athlete of the Year for his efforts in and outside the court as well as Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player for the second year in a row.

Even so, the Cardinals’ season would be impressive. The real feat of their run, though, is the Midwest Regional, in which they dominated every single opponent, winning against North Carolina AT&T by 31 points, against Colorado State by 26, against Oregon by 8 and against Duke by 22. Russ Smith was elected best player of the tournament, while Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva were in the best starting five with him. These are impressive numbers, especially regarding the win over Duke, which was the only non-Big East team which was able to beat Louisville in this season.

WHY LOUISVILLE COULD WIN IT ALL

Every team, seeing the Cardinals’ season, would have fear to face the Cardinals. But does the regular season suffice to win it all? Obviously not. So, let’s see the reasons why, for the writer, the Cardinals are the team to beat.

We shall not forget that even in the past season, Louisville reached the Final Four and lost only versus Kentucky (which eventually won the national championship) in the semifinal. In this season, Pitino has been able to count on five of the nine players of the past year. That means that the players know each other very well and that they are very tight-knit. Moreover, they have added to the roster the freshman Montrezl Harrell, a player with size and a lot of energy who comes off the bench, probably the missing piece for Louisville to win it all.

Between the reasons why Louisville could be the team to beat, how couldn’t we mention Rick Pitino? His way of conceive basketball has always been one of the keys to the Cardinals’ success and has never been so effective as it s this year. His idea of equally dividing possessions between player was fundamental to render Louisville’s offense hard to guard. Opponents can’t focus on a single player, because all of them can score some points. Pitino’s will to constantly control the game pace always forced opponents to adapt to the will of Russ Smith and his teammates. Louisville often starts with a slow pace, but at some point the Cardinals accelerate in no time to make the break and to close the game.

The horrific injury of Kevin Ware is a further motivation to the Cardinals, which will do everything they can to win also for the unlucky teammate. Ware motivated his teammates also with his words, which can have an important effect on Louisville’s focus. We must not forget to consider also Louisville’ schedule. In the semifinal, they will have to face Wichita State, which obviously is a good team, but probably not at the level of the powerhouses already defeated. In the final game, the Cardinals could face Syracuse, that they have already beaten in the regular season and in the Big East tournament final. The team which could be the hardest to beat for Louisville is arguably Michigan. Even in this case, Pitino has the players to face the Wolverines: Dieng would be a hard opponent for Mitch McGary, who is a freshman and has less experience and size than Dieng. Moreover, if there are two guards who can stop Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., then they are Peyton Siva and Russ Smith.
Do we need to write something more? We don’t think. These Cardinals are really impressive.

KEY PLAYER: GORGUI DIENG

It would be commonplace to say Russ Smith or Peyton Siva. Especially the first is having an incredible tournament and in the USA he has already earned two nicknames which reflects his outstanding skills: Russ-credible and Russ-believable. So, why Dieng? Because in this season we have often seen that the two guards can complete each other. When one of the two plays bad, the other one can still provide the points the Cardinals need. The big man, though, proved to be unique for his team’s success. When he plays bad, the whole Louisville team can not play as usual. It is no coincidence that the first loss came against Duke, when Dieng was injured and did not play. Dieng is the only true big man of the roster and his defense in the paint will be essential versus physical teams like Wichita State, Michigan and Syracuse. Opposing teams must not forget his offensive production, which has had an impressive growth during his junior season.

 

Translated by Claudio Pavesi and Marco Conti

 

Photo: Siva celebrate showing his Louisville jersey // tampabay.com