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Louisville is NCAA's true No. 1 team
NEW YORK CITY
Louisville’s stunning second-half comeback to beat Syracuse in Saturday night’s Big East tournament final brought us something we’ve had very little of during this wild college basketball season: A sense of certainty.
What’s been certain in college hoops this year? Not much. Not which team is No. 1 in the country. Every time there’s been one, that team loses. Not whom is the top player in college hoops. There’s been a new frontrunner almost every week. And not even where teams are going to play next year. With conference realignment blowing up the old Big East, old bluebloods like Georgetown and Louisville have played this season unsure which teams they’ll face next year.
So it’s refreshing, after Louisville’s swirling full-court press brought the Cardinals their second Big East tournament title in a row with a 78-61 soul-killer of a victory over Syracuse, to be able to say these three things are now certain in college basketball:
1. Louisville is the No. 1 overall seed going into the NCAA tournament.
“I would say we’re going to be the No. 1 of No. 1’s, but it’s not really a big deal,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after the win.
It would be tough for the selection committee to argue with that. Louisville's only loss since Jan. 26 was in five overtimes at Notre Dame. The Cardinals are the only major conference team of the top six in the AP Poll to win their conference tournament. (No. 1 Gonzaga won the West Coast Conference tournament.) They have a strong strength of schedule and no bad losses. They’re third in the nation in defensive efficiency. They pass the number test and the eye test.
2. Rick Pitino is the best puppeteer in college basketball.
Louisville was getting creamed in the first half because it was taking too many quick shots and wasn’t playing their offense. In the second half, Pitino’s adjustments meant better ball movement and smarter shots, which helped Louisville set up its momentum-shifting, full-court press. It was a remarkable display of how to change a game’s momentum.
Pitino’s team takes his orders as well as any other team in hoops. They even say “Yes, sir” to him during grueling practices.
3. Defense wins championships, and no team is better positioned to win this NCAA tournament than defensive-minded Louisville.
Everyone has a bad shooting night. Let’s say the Cardinals have a rough offensive game in the NCAA tournament. That’s what happened in the first half against Syracuse, where they shot 26 percent.
Louisville has a fallback plan that teams like Duke or Indiana don’t, and that’s the Cardinals' ball-deflecting, always-pressing, opponent-tiring defense.
Of course, what seems certain now seemed very far from certain early in the second half.
With 15:40 left in the game, Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng missed a short jumper. Louisville didn’t know it at the time, but the entire course of this game was about to shift. Up to this point, it had been all Syracuse. The Orange could hardly miss a shot in the first half, making 6-of-12 shots from 3-point range, and with James Southerland setting the Big East tournament record with his 17th (and then 18th) trey in four games. With 15:40 to go Syracuse had built a 16-point lead, and the very orange Madison Square Garden crowd was going bonkers.
Dieng’s jumper bounced off the rim. Montrezl Harrell jumped up in traffic to tip it in, but his tip-in missed. Dieng grabbed the rebound, then — and this is the moment that changed everything — Southerland fouled Dieng, hard.
This was Southerland’s fourth foul. All tournament long, he’s been the spark that’s set Syracuse on fire. In Syracuse’s first win, he went 6 for 9 from three. In the second game, a 62-59 win over Pitt, Southerland hit all six of his 3-point attempts, many of them with a defender in his face. Against Georgetown he made four more. But with his fourth foul, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim benched him.
This is where the entire game shifted. Louisville’s press fueled an obscene 27-3 run over the next 6:41. That put Louisville in the lead for good as they outscored Syracuse 56-25 in the second half.
It was a perfect Pitino victory. Louisville scored 32 points — 41 percent of its total — off turnovers. Guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith weren’t making shots, so Pitino turned to his bench. The bench responded with more than half of Louisville's points, including 20 from the freshman backup forward Harrell.
“In order to get that type of defensive pressure, where your conditioning, where all that hustle is a factor, you have to take good shots, and we took good shots in the second half,” Pitino said. “This was a road game tonight. I was trying to find red (translation: Louisville fans in the stands), and we found about 1,500, 2,000. But to play like this, I have all the confidence in the world.”
In the end, Louisville did what it always does, which is wear its opponent down in the second half.
“Louisville’s the hardest team for us to play at the end of four days,” Boeheim said afterward. “It’s very difficult to go back and go against a pressing team in the last game in the fourth day. That’s really hard to do. You have to give Louisville credit because they are, in my mind, one of the best pressing teams in the country.”
Things don’t stay certain for long this year. It would be entirely appropriate in this season of upsets if Louisville is the No. 1 overall seed, then doesn’t make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
But we should note one thing: After a swarming of the court and a Big East tournament champion trophy presentation, Louisville did not cut down the nets like they did when they won the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden last year.
“We had four goals going into this year,” Pitino said. “One was to win the regular season, and we shared it with great teams. Two was to win this championship. Three was to get a very high seed. And four was to win a national championship.
“Now we don’t presume at all that we can get there,” Pitino continued. “We just wanted to savor, if we ever do get there, that one moment.”
In a season of uncertainties, it’s probably not something to put a wager on. But as it stands right now, no team’s in a better position to be cutting nets down in Atlanta on April 8 than this Louisville team.
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