The Road Less Traveled
This season’s road to the Final Four has been different for just one school. Louisville has not blown anyone away or even looked like the better team in a couple of days. Riding the wave of momentum of a coveted Big East Championship, the Cardinals have found their way to New Orleans by the skin of their teeth, the grace of God, and a huge flop from Florida in the final five minutes. No offense to any player on the Cardinals, but unlike its three mates in the Final Four, they won’t see anyone drafted in June.
This may be the finest year of coaching Rick Pitino has muster in his days in college basketball (certainly better than his pro days). It may be impossible to actually measure how a season stacks up against another in terms of success in coaching, but this year Pitino does not have the talent he has in years past; however, he is in the Final Four which he has not accomplished since 2005. Those were the days of Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean, remember those two? Oh and by the way, the Cardinals were in Conference USA in 2004-2005. The only question now, is how in the hell did Louisville make it here? A good draw certainly helped. New Mexico was a weak #5 seed and Michigan State was probably the weakest #1. They ended up playing a #7 Florida in the Elite Eight to finally get to New Orleans, but in all honesty, how did they manage to even beat those teams? If anyone watched Louisville at the end of this season (save the Marquette game on March 8th in the Big East Tournament) and the Cards looked like a high school team at points. The ball was flailing all over the place and shooting was just abysmal. Even here in March Louisville is yet to look like a Final Four team. There is no show-stopping player that will leave scout drooling. There is not even a blue-chip player on the court. They have players with names like Peyton Siva, Chane Behanan, and Gorgui Dieng. Forward Kyle Kuric has the absolute oddest complexion in the tournament and Chris/Russ Smith may actually be the same person. All in all, nothing about Louisville adds up to a Final Four team…well, except that Mafia man patrolling the sidelines. Rick Pitino is one of the finest coaches around. The game is a lot harder to coach when you cannot just throw your players on the field and yell, “play!” the way John Calipari, Jim Boeheim, and Roy Williams did this season. Pitino has had to make his players give 110% every night, or the Cardinals are not advancing, as simple as that. It has to be 40 minutes of grind-it-out Big East basketball or Louisville is taking the long bus ride after the first or second round. Louisville has done it so far. Ask Big Ten power Michigan State and Tom Izzo how they felt about having to play Big East basketball where you are not scoring 70 or maybe even 60 points. Ask Florida how it wears you down to play against a physical team for 40 minutes. They might tell you, “Our team can only play with Big East toughness for 35 minutes”. It is nothing to be ashamed, losing to Louisville. Michigan State and Florida look back and think “We were way more talented than those guys, how the hell did we lose?” The next look is directed at the Louisville bench and there sits Rick Pitino probably doing Mafia stuff and enlightenment hits the faces of the defeated. Rick Pitino has done what every coach hopes to do. Pitino has made his players buy into how he wants them to play. I once had a coach who told me, “If you play the way I tell you and do what I tell you to do, we’ll win the game”. Louisville plays the way Pitino tells them . The Cardinals do what Pitino demands. Other teams run out onto the court and pray talent will lead to the promised land or hope it begins to rain three balls. Meanwhile, a Louisville team which has a distinct lack of NBA talent for the only Big East team in the Final Four continuous to win ball games in March. Connecticut rode the Big East Championship tsunami to NCAA greatness last year. The team they played in the Final Four? Now, Peyton Siva and company see the same Wildcats team blocking its path to basketball glory. Once again, the Big East team is out-talented and a huge underdog to the Bluegrass Boys. The Kentucky juggernaut hit a speed bump against Vanderbilt in the SEC tourney, but the absolute roll Kentucky has been on added to a 9 point win over Louisville in Lexington gives the Wildcats a.k.a. the all ugly team superb confidence against Louisville. Despite everything Kentucky has going for it in this game, there is something to remember: Louisville has stunned many by making it this far. Who is to say the Cardinals cannot do it again? A team which bucked the trail of talent overhaul to reach the Final Four is playing the good ‘ol brand of basketball. The type of game played by the #3 Connecticut Huskies last year en route to a Championship. The type of game where the players conform to who their coach is and play his brand of basketball. They make him look like a genius and all the while just keep inching along as no one seems able to knock them down. Rick Pitino has completing taken over the aura and mentality of this Louisville team. Does the Road Less Traveled still exist? Or does it converge at the path of supreme talent where the Cardinals do not have the horses to overcome the rocky terrain. All one can do is wait and see.