University of Louisville basketball was gone for a while but now it’s back.
Back in the Elite Eight, but with even higher, much higher, expectations. Rick Pitino said it himself after UofL’s 57-44 win over Michigan State, he’s looking forward to a reunion, a return to the Final Four. Much more than that, however, “We want to win a national championship.”
Focused like a laser, spending every waking minute on the objective. His team wants it, too, but they’re not getting ahead of themselves, one foe at a time. Michigan State was next in line.
- Pitino’s team picking apart a Tom Izzo team that felt comfortable in its own skin, a team with few visible weaknesses, a powerhouse constructed on rebounding and second chance baskets. All but exposing Draymond Green, turning him into a turnover machine, forcing him into six errors, leaving him angry and frustrated, at one point attempting to run over Russ Smith. Forcing a team averaging only 12 turnovers per game into 15 big ones, each one costly and painful.
- Michigan State had spent a lot of time studying Peyton Siva, devising ways to keep him out of the lane, creating a virtual fortress beneath the basket. But Siva would keep probing, testing and teasing them, he and Russ finding creative ways around the barriers, getting the ball to Chane Behanan time and time again. Nine assists for Siva, three for Russ.
- Gorgui Dieng and Behanan were not going to be intimated by the Spartan muscle, claiming nine rebounds each, nor would they be outdone by the smaller guards, both of them coming with three steals themselves. Gorgui doing what he does best defensively, blocking shots, swatting seven of them into irrelevance.
- Chris Smith once again setting an early positive tone, finally getting UofL on the scoreboard at the 15:46 mark with one of those straight-line three-pointers. Another one at 6:46 to put U of L up 17-11, hey maybe just maybe this thing is obtainable. A third one 9:46 to put his team up by nine. The quiet guy letting his shooting do the talking again.
- Just when a team catches its breath, Pitino sends Russ Smith in to get them rattled again. Probably the first game in his life Russ has gone without a steal, but he was definitely comfortable getting under somebody else’s skin.
- Jared Swopshire surprised Izzo, his teammates, his girl friend and his family with those two shots from the corner, even managing a couple of steals. What was even more surprising was his newfound speed getting back on defense.
The satisfaction of returning the favor to Michigan State, which knocked UofL out of the tourney in 2009, is meant to be savored. But it is far outweighed by the emergence of a newly-energized Louisville team that seems to keep getting better and better at just the right time, carving themselves a special place in UofL basketball history.