This wasn’t the tournament’s No. 1 seed playing even near peak capacity, which made it all the more impressive. Louisville defeated Oregon 77-69 in a game that never felt as close as the score occasionally got, for the simple reason the Cardinals never let it stay that way.
This year’s No. 1 seed from the Bluegrass isn’t to be confused with last year’s No. 1, also from the Bluegrass. The Kentucky that would become 2012 NCAA champs had great players who blended beautifully. The Louisville of 2013 lacks top-end talent — after the Cards won two games last week in Rupp Arena, Rick Pitino noted archly that his men weren’t playing for the NBA lottery but for each other — but they’re so deep they could well touch on greatness themselves.
The Cardinals don’t overwhelm so much with skill as with sheer will. They keep coming, and there are so many contributors that the guys doing damage in this wave might be sitting beside Pitino when the next wave hits.
We saw this in Friday’s first half, when point guard Peyton Siva, the MVP of the Big East tournament, was whistled for two fouls in five minutes and sat the rest of the half. For most collegiate teams, scoring is hard enough even at full strength. In two Thursday games in the East Regional, No. 2-seed Miami and No. 1 Indiana managed a total of 38 points in their first halves. With Siva mostly seated against Oregon, Louisville managed 45 points in 20 minutes.
Siva’s understudy is Kevin Ware, who played at Rockdale County and who did the city of Conyers proud this night. In 15 first-half minutes, Ware scored nine points and made all four of his shots. Ware and fellow guard Russ Smith took turns swooping through the Oregon defense, sort of the way the Oregon football team slices up Pac-12 defenses. Louisville got next to nothing from Siva in Half No. 1 and still led by 14 at the break.
About Smith: He’s the personification of risk/reward. He’s so daring he can win games by himself, and sometimes he’s so imprudent he can lose them. He was particularly egregious in the five-overtime loss at Notre Dame on Feb. 9, but it must be noted that the Cardinals haven’t lost since. Pitino has dubbed Smith “Russdiculous” for his excesses, and yet the coach is so fond of his player that he named a thoroughbred — the Commonwealth of Kentucky also is big on horse racing — Russdiculous.
There was no dominant team over the regular season — five different schools were ranked No. 1, Gonzaga most recently — but the Cardinals are the one remaining team that has dominating potential. They press and they guard and they rebound, and they’re not unpolished on offense. (A lot of teams that defend with such diligence have no idea how to score if they don’t steal the ball.)
Some of this has to do with Pitino, who rose to prominence the 1980s on the strength of the newly instituted 3-point shot, but has long since shed the label of being — another equine reference — just a one-trick pony. When Pitino was coaching Kentucky, the Louisville radio commentator Jock Sutherland said: “His teams can hurt you in every way.” With Pitino now coaching the Wildcats’ hated rival, the same applies.
With five minutes left in Friday’s regional semifinal, Oregon drew within six points, having trailed by 18 not long before. This was U of L’s response: Ware scored on a driving banker, Wayne Blackshear made a steal, Chane Behanan dunked off a Smith pass and then Smith, who scored 31 points, made two free throws. Just another mini-flurry for the team that authors the best flurries going.
The Big East final against Syracuse was the greatest example: Down by 16 points inside the final 10 minutes, the ’Ville won by 17. It was that game that lifted the Cardinals to the top overall NCAA seed, and it’s the reason they and not Indiana are here for the Midwest Regional. A slew of red-clad fans made the two-hour drive to watch the Cards on Friday, and surely they’ll be back for Sunday’s final.
The opposition there — either Duke or Michigan State — will be stronger, but to watch Louisville these past six weeks has been to see a very good team building toward a moment of greatness. This isn’t to say the Cardinals can’t be beaten. It is to say they’re the team to beat.