Louisville survives initial wave, Russ Smith puts SMU away

Fired up to insane levels, those 7,000 fans in the Moody Coliseum, some of them proclaiming it to be greatest game ever for the Southern Methodist basketball program, matching two top 20 teams.

Attracting Texas heavyweight fans, former President George W. Bush, first lady Laura Bush, first daughter Jenna Bush, Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, along with former quarterback Troy Aikman, and Michael Finley, formerly of the San Antonio Spurs. A boisterous and intimidating atmosphere for the University of Louisville basketball team.

Not surprisingly Southern Methodist was 15-0 at home going into game, with decisive wins over Memphis, Cincinnati and UConn. And as Rick Pitino noted after UofL’s 84-71 win, the home crowd can be more than a little nasty.

Coached by Hall of Famer Larry Brown, SMU was feeding on the frenzy and thirsting for a major upset. They were destined to get off to one of those unbelievable starts — and they did. The only question was how UofL would respond to the assault, whether this team, fresh from a loss at Memphis, would be able to fight its way back into the game or just get out of the way.

The Mustangs would stampede to a 26-12, rearing up for the knockout kick, get on down the road. Then a funny thing happened. UofL began hitting free throws — Montrelz Harrell, two for two, Russ Smith, two for two, and Chris Jones, two for two — with a Luke Hancock three-pointer sandwiched between the free throw line trips.

Hancock would add another three, Jones a three, and all a sudden Louisville owned a 27-26 lead after a miraculous three and a half minutes. The aforementioned question had been answered. Chris Jones, glad to get out of Memphis again, would score 13 of his 21 points during the first half, providing the offensive leadership Louisville needed to own a wide-eyed 32-30 lead at the half.

The other question to be answered was whether UofL could protect a lead over a ranked team, especially on the road, especially after one of the ugliest game starts in recent memory, during a season in which they had fizzled too often at clutch time.

Russ Smith would answer that question almost singlehandedly, scoring 22 of his 26 points after halftime, including six three-pointers.  He would hit three straight threes right after his alley-oop pass on the go-ahead dunk by Montrezl Harrell midway through the second half.

Each of his shots more incredulous than the last, tossing daggers from every conceivable angle, some of them ill-advised if Russ Smith wasn’t the one making them. UofL needing every single one of those shots to finally stifle the Mustangs. But at the end, Russ was throwing up on the sideline, fortunately into a trash can, admitting that the sight of his vomit made the situation even more volatile for him.

The final blow, this one for the fans, was delivered by Montrelz Harrell, raising his game total to 19 points, with another thunderous dunk just before the horn. The SMU fans, still hanging around, still making noise, unwilling to graciously accept the exclamation point, their partying reduced to booing at the end.

Ready for BYU, Boise State in the Big East

This Big East Conference is hard at work at becoming much more relevant where it matters most — in football.

ESPN is reporting that Brigham Young (BYU) is giving serious consideration to becoming a football-only member, bringing with it some serious respect and a built-in national following of fans second only to Notre Dame.

Boise State and Houston, currently ranked 10th and 11th nationally in the most recent BCS standings, are reportedly close to accepting invitations as well. Boise State would be football only, Houston for all sports.

The longer this conference realignment takes, the better the situation looks for the University of Louisville, which desperately needs the Big East Conference to retain its automatic qualifier status until 2014 and beyond. Adding BYU, Boise State and Houston would almost guarantee that while making the Big East stronger than it is now.

Other new members being mentioned have included Air Force and Navy in football, and UCF and SMU in all sports — all of them with strong commitments to their football programs. BYU would be a good replacement for Air Force, which is said to have been wavering of late.

Concerned about basketball? Don’t be. The Big East will continue to be a major basketball power, with the likes of Louisville, UConn, Marquette, Villanova, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, St. John’s, and Georgetown.

There may be advantages to shedding Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia from night in and night out grind of Big East basketball as well. But the football schedule is about to become even more challenging.

East Carolina snubbed again by Big East

The Big East, at long last, is getting serious about conference expansion, having extended invitations to six schools.

Boise State, Air Force, Navy for football-only.

Houston, UCF and SMU for all sports.

Not a bad list from a football perspective, basketball not so great. Missing from the mix, however, is East Carolina, which  doesn’t seem to be able to catch a break.

The powers that be have apparently decided that ECU’s rabid fan base, impressive attendance (50,000 or more per game) and winning tradition aren’t worth much. All efforts to include ECU have been rebuked at every turn.

East Carolina wants in as a football-member only and would be a definite improvement over UCF.  Too bad Central Florida is in Orlando and East Carolina is in Greenville. 

The TV networks are obviously meddling again.