It shouldn’t really be a surprise that one team that has been flying under the radar this season is the defending national champion Louisville Cardinals.
During last year’s run to the title, Louisville used a 15-game winning streak to finish out the year, culminating in a victory over the Michigan Wolverines for the 2013 National Championship. That same type of winning streak won’t happen this year, but the Cardinals have an outside shot to sneak into a 1-seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament (considering nobody else seems to want to be a 1-seed this year), something that seemed nearly impossible a month ago.
Winners in 13 of their 15 games in the 2014 calendar year, Louisville is rolling at the right time. They’re not as high-powered as they were last season, but Rick Pitino is still the head coach and Russ Smith still knows how to score the ball. The UCONN Huskies rode that type of combination en route to the 2011 championship, so who’s to say that the Cardinals can’t do the same?
Many began to wonder where the Cardinals were headed this season after Chane Behanan was dismissed from the team for violating team rules on multiple occasions. A solid presence the previous year, Behanan was not able to keep his nose clean and stick around. A valuable asset for Louisville was gone and restructuring was necessary.
People soon forgot about the Cardinals as a potential national championship contender, yet they’ve done nothing to scare them away. With only five losses on the year it’s rather questionable as to why people have shied away from considering Louisville for repeat performers, especially since each of those losses came against ranked, streaking opponents.
Montrezl Harrell and Smith have been the catalysts for Pitino this season, being the top two scorers on the team and leading the team in rebounding and assists, respectively, as well as playing the most minutes of anybody else. They’re the glue that’s kept the plan together for Louisville this season. Despite a few bumps in the road, nothing Harrell or Smith have done this year should deflect attention from them. In fact, they should be embracing it.
But maybe Louisville is better off flying under the radar this season. Aside from their in-conference victories over Cincinnati and UCONN, the Cardinals don’t really have a highlight victory. None of their wins seem “sexy” to fans and media members alike. Losing to Kentucky is looking more and more like a fluke, but it’s still a loss in their eyes. North Carolina has defeated each of the top four teams ranked in the preseason, but it’s still a loss.
In many ways Louisville is suffering from the same problem Wichita State is, which is ironic since these two teams played each other in the Final Four last season. All year long Wichita State has played great basketball, finishing the season undefeated and on their way to a 1-seed in the tournament. Of course the question has been, “Yeah, that’s cool, but who have you beaten?” It’s an unfair question that needs to stop, but that’s besides the point. Louisville has also played great basketball this year. Five losses is a fantastic season for most in college basketball, but for the defending national champions that’s a letdown to some. Couple that with not having a high-profile victory and there you have it.
Louisville doesn’t need the attention and they certainly haven’t been asking for it. They’re in a conference (American Athletic Conference) that is technically considered the mid-major of major conferences and will only be there for this year before they move to the ACC next season. As a whole the AAC has been a mystery, with all of the top five teams sweeping one another in some sort of capacity. Louisville is just lost in the mix there. Moving from the historically superior Big East to the brand new AAC has played a role in the Cardinals’ lack of mainstream appeal.
The Louisville Cardinals can lock up the AAC Regular Season championship outright this weekend with a win against UCONN and a Cincinnati loss. After that it’s on to the conference tournament and NCAAs. Sleeping on the Louisville would be a huge mistake. They’re not the same team they were last year, but they don’t have to be. They have the scorers, the intensity, the coach and determination to win it all. Sometimes it’s the most unexpected teams that make the biggest splash.