Louisville 57, Michigan State 44,
It’s a freight train now

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.

Surprising Louisville creates a special niche with this Big East championship

Happy? Who cares about sleep, anyway. Clocks advancing forward, losing still another hour. The night belongs to the University of Louisville, winner of the a second Big East Basketball Tournament Championship in four years.

This team emerged from nowhere, no expectations a week ago, transforming itself from a six or seven seed into a four maybe three seed in four unbelievable days. Four games in four nights, the comeback, payback tour, taking down three of the conference’s four best teams, all of them ranked, the fourth no slouch.

Holding on for dear life at the end, gasping for breath, searching for their legs, but never letting up on defense. Challenging every dribble, deflecting every other pass, denying the intended, taking a physical beating in the process. Falling behind early, but only briefly, allowing Cincinnati only 14 points in the first half. Feeding on the press, living on turnovers for a spell, turning the game into a nightmare for the Bearcats for a 50-44 win.

  • Chris Smith will not be denied in his home state, striking early with a three-pointer from his corner that would set the tone. No flashbacks to last week, no backsliding. Chris is on and he’s not going to allow that to happen. Need more? He will come with two more three’s, each one better than the last. He won’t give up even when he misses, tipping his missed shot in, serving notice one more time to the Bearcats.
  • Peyton Siva getting knocked into a herd of photographers, cameras and lenses at one point, limping back into action before a trip to the bench where gets a tongue-lashing from a non-sympathetic Rick Pitino. Sacrificing the body comes with the point guard job, too much at stake to give into pain.  The old men — the coach and the dad in the stands — will not be disappointed, Siva taking this team on his shoulders with his 10 points, five assists and four rebounds.
  • Russ Smith runs on instinct, shot from a cannon, lightning quick, those hands of his tormenting, catlike reactions when someone breathes on him, falling backwards or sideways. Leaning on people, in their faces. Who wouldn’t get frustrated after a while, want to swat the pest, throw an elbow at him? Just don’t do it while the stripes are watching. Credited with only three steals but, oh, that perfect form at the charity stripe, four of four critical free throws.
  • Gorgui Dieng has the job of trying to contain the bear, Yancy Gates, chest bumping, fronting him, keeping him away from the basket a must while hoping the next whistle doesn’t send himself to the bench. A hard night’s work against a player with a history, holding Gates to only nine points. Meanwhile, laboring for 10 rebounds, three blocks and five points.
  • Kyle Kuric contributing 13 points, slowing making his way back from the shooting slump, taking what the defense gives him, not forcing shots, looking forward to the brackets. Now with very good reason.

No matter what U of L does in the NCAA Tournament, this team has carved a special niche for itself in the long memories of their fans, demanding and commanding respect in a situation a week ago that was bordering on a vacuum. Winning for themselves a tournament championship in the best basketball conference in college basketball.

Denny Crum would give players a break

One aging coach with advice for another.

Denny Crum once again said on his radio show Thursday that the Louisville basketball team looked tired and sluggish, this time against South Florida. A large segment of U of L fans would concur. This team doesn’t remotely resemble the one that started the season.

The former U of L coach indicated he would give the players a break for two or three days, allowing them to get their legs back. Nothing more important than fresh legs, he added. Not the first time he has brought it up, probably not the last.

During a Senior Night span of three minutes, Chris Smith had two three-pointers, a steal and an assist. Immediately after hitting his second three, he is pulled.

Rick Pitino’s answer the last time this came up was that his practices aren’t that hard because of all the injuries this season. He will have an answer, he always does. Watch for it in his Friday press conference.

Crum also said U of L was taking too many challenged and off-balance shots, which Pitino indicated came from his team playing too tight against against a physical team playing a slowdown game. The “challenged and off-balance shots” has a familiar ring, something Pitino has had to address before.

The really surprising admission from Pitino after Wednesday’s game was that he needed more than two shooters on the floor, referring to Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith. Actually, he had only one shooter until Smith snapped out of his slump in the second half.

Funny thing about Chris Smith. During a Senior Night span of less than three minutes, the UofL senior had two three-pointers, a steal and an assist. Immediately after hitting his second three, he is pulled. Back to one shooter again. Can’t wait to hear the explanation for that one.

Doubtful anything will change, regardless of what Pitino says (He usually does the opposite). Angel Nunez will get a couple of minutes, Wayne Blackshear may actually get a few seconds.

Game preparation is another issue where Crum and Pitino would seem to differ. Crum always talked about working on things his team did best. Pitino spends hours looking at film of the opposition and expects his players to do the same. During the last few games, it has been obvious U of L knew what was coming, but not how to respond, especially on the offensive end.

Sun setting for Swopshire, Kuric and Chris Smith

Where did the time go?

Final game on Denny Crum Court, three more players making their way into the University of Louisville basketball archives. The calendar and clock running out of days and hours, mandating that we give up their presence, exchanging them for memories.

  • Kyle Kuric — Any farewell has to begin with him, going from walk on, to scholarship player, to walk on again during four seasons. So many distinct impressions, the most enduring his breakout game, the last one at Freedom Hall, 22 points in an unbelievable second half, legendary stuff. Over time, so many three pointers from the left corner, Kyle’s Corner, so many clutch shots. He also surprised, amazed us actually, with his leaping ability, those quick bursts of energy, resulting in impossible rebounds and dunks, among them the Dunk of the Year in a game against Notre Dame. So many minutes during his senior year, so many contributions, so hard to let him go.
  • Chris Smith — Resilient on defense but rarely getting into foul trouble. When his three-point shot was on, his team was difficult to contain. Second on the team in three-point shooting, hitting better than 40 percent of them.  When things were going downhill during his senior year, he called a team meeting to clear the air, the results becoming obvious on the basketball court. Toughness on the court, never backing down, no pushing him around. Taking care of the basketball, fewest number of turnovers among the starters. A quiet but steady force, his numbers in the box score often surprising, always a leader.
  • Jared Swopshire — A basketball name if ever there was one, conjuring up visions of greatness. Sadly his time at Louisville sidetracked by a groin injury taking too long to heal, also preventing him from bulking up, becoming more of a threat on the boards. Never accused of being a gym rat, seemingly holding back, not totally dedicated, the casual loping down the court, the blank expressions. Attracting the attention of NBA scouts before the injury, he had the look of solid potential, never getting past the look. A few more games ahead, time to let it happen if it is meant to be.

A farewell to KFC Yum! Center awaits them against South Florida but hopefully a season far from over.

Louisville not nice for Mike Rice

A nice little 78-66 win for University of Louisville basketball over a Rutgers team that, thankfully, had to play the one game between the teams in Louisville.

Mike Rice, the Rutgers coach ejected after two quick technicals in the first, would confirm that officiating calls for real or imagined infractions rarely go the way of visiting teams in the Big East. Not that we’re complaining or insinuating, mind you.

Nature of the beast, U of L taking full advantage Saturday in front of 21,298 fans at the KFC Yum! Center. Had this game been played at Piscataway, N.J., possibly a disappointing outcome.

  • There’s an obvious loss of efficiency when any of Louisville starters leave the game, even when Russ Smith is hitting shots and making assists. No expectations or aspirations of becoming a point guard.
  • Peyton Siva picking up his second foul with Louisville leading 20-12 at the 12 minute mark of the first half, sitting for the next eight minutes. Gonna be a game, Rutgers trailing by only five points at halftime.
  • Gorgui Deing landing badly on an ankle, nobody around to block or intimidate Rutgers shooters, everybody knows it. But, wait, there is hope. Gorgui has returned from the dressing room, disguising a limp. ready to go again.
  • No double-double, not even close for Dieng for the first time in six games, but he was forcing Rutgers’ shooters to have plenty of second and third thoughts.
  • Chane Behanan, fortunately, staying out of foul trouble, playing the best 35 minutes of his college career, dominating the offensive boards with his 23 points and eight rebounds (plus three on the defensive boards). His role is cleanup hitter around the basket and he’s claiming everything in his vicinity.
  • One never knows what to expect of Chris Smith, just that he will be good for a “Wow” at least once a night — as in the left-one-handed monster dunk that left prompted “oohs” from his fans and teammates, probably surprised himself. Somehow, inconspicuously snatching 13 rebounds and making six assists while no one was watching.
  • Kyle Kuric, good for three three-pointers, but missing more than his share of open shots. Three rebounds and the coach wants more, suggesting he might not start Monday. Like anyone would believe that’s a possiblity.

A long night ahead for Gorgui Dieng and his fans, his ankle heavily wrapped in ice in an effort to alleviate the pain, limit the swelling, and to promote the fastest recovery from injury for a Louisville player this season.

When asked about his chances of playing Monday, Dieng replied:  “I’m ready to play. . . . I care about this team more than anything.”