Here are three observations from Louisville’s impressive 85-63 Elite Eight win against Duke Sunday to earn its second-consecutive Final Four berth:
1. Through the first four (or five) games of the NCAA tournament, Louisville looks every bit the part of the No. 1 overall seed and more than earned its trip to Atlanta.
In short, the Cardinals look athletic, locked in and dominant.
After blitzing past North Carolina A&T and Colorado State, Louisville held a lead against Oregon from start to finish before reaching another level against No. 2-seed Duke in Indianapolis. Playing in front of a red-clad contingent which made the short trip from the Bluegrass State to Lucas Oil Stadium, Louisville rode a 20-4 run to the win.
Its average margin of victory in the tourney? 21.8 points per game.
With the win — some will call it revenge for Louisville coach Rick Pitino, as it was his first tourney meeting with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski since the famed Christian Laettner shot in 1992 — the Big East tournament and Midwest regional champs draw upstart Wichita State, a mid-major who scratched and clawed its way to Atlanta.
On paper, it should not be a contest. Louisville is the better team, has been all season.
Cinderella made it to the ball this time around — but glass slippers won’t help against Louisville’s press. The Shockers are truly going to have to live up to their names for Louisville not to reach the national title game.
2. Duke could not defend Louisville’s pick-and-roll, and it proved to be the undoing of Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils.
Louisville guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith had their way with Duke’s defense, utilizing high pick-and-roll situations to penetrate into the lane and wreak havoc. At one point in the second half, the score was actually tied, 42-42. Then, not only did the vaunted Cardinals’ defense prevent the Blue Devils from hitting a single shot from the field for over eight minutes, but Siva and Smith took over.
Siva, in particular, has had a quiet tournament to date, but exploded for 16 points (6-of-10 shooting) and four assists. With the game hanging in the balance and 15 minutes remaining, it was Siva, the senior point guard, who scored or assisted on eight consecutive Cardinal points that blew the game wide open.
Smith, who has fulfilled his reputation as one of the most dangerous offensive guards in the country this tournament, continued his scoring streak by running up 23 points, many in thrilling fashion. “Russdiculous” has totaled 104 points so far this tournament — and that’s with two possible games remaining on the docket.
By getting Duke big men Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly out in space on the perimeter — Kelly, though a “stretch four” and versatile, still does not look up to speed following his foot injury earlier in the season — the two Cardinals upperclassmen were able to put their superior speed to good use. No answer ever came.
No team has shut down Pitino’s athletic backcourt yet in the NCAAs. When Siva and Smith are executing at the level they were against Duke, what’s to say Wichita State, Syracuse or Michigan can be the first?
3. Kevin Ware’s injury offered a gruesome glimpse into the lowest of moments in sports.
First things first: No player or person should ever have to go through what Ware, a sophomore guard for the Cardinals, went through Sunday — a gruesome leg injury that TV networks and journalism outlets elected not to re-air or replay for its sheer graphic nature. After the game, Pitino said the leg was severely broken in two places.
It will take a year of rehabilitation before Ware, an Atlanta native, can return to game action, according to Pitino’s postgame interview.
The injury offered a jolting (and sad) dose of reality that underscores college basketball in 2013: an enthralling national sporting event which garners hundreds of millions of dollars annually for the NCAA continues to be perpetuated by “amateur” athletes like Ware, who to this day are under-compensated for their considerable talents.
Ware deserves nothing but the best of wishes in his recovery. His teammates’ emotional reaction to his fall and subsequent stellar play underscored not only the fact that they will be playing for him at the Final Four, in his hometown, but that there is a considerable resilience to this Cardinals team. Pitino’s squad lost one of its better players Sunday and turned in a smothering performance against one of the nation’s better teams.
Don’t expect an emotional letdown from Louisville next weekend.