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Cards tightest family in Final Four
For the past month, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about Louisville’s historically great pressure defense that made it the prohibitive favorite leading into March, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and the all-over-but-the-net-cutting presumptive NCAA champion going into the Final Four.
I looked at all the numbers. The numbers confirmed that, yes, Louisville’s defense is quite tough. The Cardinals rank second in the nation in steals and second in the nation in turnover margin. The Cardinals rank first in the nation in defensive efficiency. In fact, the Cardinals have the best adjusted defensive efficiency rating since the analytics website KenPom.com began tracking the numbers a decade ago.
But this team’s greatness is about more than just numbers.
I tried the eye test. Louisville passed it, and with flying colors. I watched the speediest guard combination in the country, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, dashing from one baseline to the other as the fulcrum in head coach Rick Pitino’s signature full-court press. I was amazed at center Gorgui Dieng’s nimble athleticism and basketball smarts on both ends of the court, things he didn’t show two years ago. I loved how this team’s belief in its system ensured that, even when Louisville was down 16 in the second half to Syracuse in the Big East championship game, it still could win, and did.
But this team’s greatness is about more than just the eye test.
I went to the source. I asked Pitino what about this team made its defense one of the most dominant in recent memory. If you’re on a Pitino team and you’re not playing defense, you’re not playing. He replied that it’s about preparing for the Final Four in October with wearying conditioning sessions. He said it’s about focusing constantly on the little things, like pressing on out-of-bounds plays to try to get five-second violations.
But this team’s greatness is about more than just superior conditioning and a singular focus. What it took to figure out the spine of Louisville’s greatness was seeing a backup point guard shatter his leg, and then seeing his team’s heart-wrenching reaction.
This year’s Louisville Cardinals are so great because no team in American sports is more of a team than Pitino’s squad.
Call it maudlin if you must. But the obvious locker-room bond here is the intangible factor that, more than any X’s and O’s, more than any statistic on defensive efficiency, more than any 5-star ranking next to a recruit’s name, makes this team so great.
This is not a freakishly talented team, especially on the offensive end. Only one player, Dieng, projects as a sure-thing NBA draft pick, and experts see him likely going toward the end of the first round. Louisville doesn’t shoot too well, ranking 107th in Division I in field-goal percentage. Its best scorer, Russ Smith, is still prone to forehead-slapping moments when he tries to create.
But when backup point guard Kevin Ware shattered his leg in a freak injury in the first half of Louisville’s Elite Eight game against Duke, we saw Louisville’s true colors shine through. Their emotions weren’t just because six inches of bone were sticking out of Ware’s leg right in front of the bench. This was about a team that was as tight as any team in America.
We saw Smith bawling on the court, just like he did on the bus ride to Madison Square Garden two weeks before when he learned his beloved high school coach had passed away. We saw Luke Hancock hover intimately over Ware, calming him as doctors tended to his broken leg. We saw Ware tell his teammates again and again, “Just go win this game.” We saw Siva gather his teammates on the court to pray for Ware. We saw, after Ware had been rushed to an Indianapolis hospital for emergency surgery, Chane Behanan squeeze into Ware’s jersey as the seconds ticked down on Louisville’s victory.
We saw a team that…really…actually…truly…loves each other.
“I don't think I've ever been more proud of a group of young men, the way they acted and cried their brains out for Kevin, and then the way Kevin got them together and the way he reacted,” Pitino said Thursday, two days before his team faces Wichita State in the coach’s seventh Final Four. “I don't think I could be any prouder of young men. The outward emotion of love that they showed each other was, for me, just a great thing as a basketball coach to witness.”
“It's just incredible how adversity brings out the best in people.”
Sometimes, adversity does bring out the best in people. Sometimes, adversity brings out the worst. What adversity is sure to reveal is a person’s soul. That’s what Kevin Ware’s awful injury against Duke showed us about this Louisville team: It showed us this team’s soul.
You’ve seen when a team starts struggling and players start sniping at each other. That’s the opposite of Louisville. When Louisville was way down in the second half against Syracuse in the Big East final, it didn’t snipe, it buckled down, went on an absurd 27-3 run, and blew out the Orange. When Ware’s injury made teammates clench at their stomachs and then rally in his name, it was the most obvious example yet of what makes this Louisville team great.
The constantly pressing defense that Louisville runs means the players have to be perfectly attuned to each other as Louisville defenders swing from one ballhandler to another. In this style of defense, there must be trust.
And on the court, this is a team that trusts each other, and loves each other, like family.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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