*This is the third edition in a four-part series this week where we will have four writers arguing the national championship credentials for the only NCAA teams left in March Madness: Ohio State, Kansas, Kentucky and Louisville. First, it was Ohio State. Yesterday, we brought you Kansas. Today, it’s Louisville.*
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This might come across like a car salesman advising a buyer to take the bus instead, but I propose that it’s time we all stopped buying into the sports media creations called underachieving and overachieving.
Here’s what they really mean: Underachieving is when an athlete, coach or team performs worse than what the media experts predicted. Overachieving is when they perform better than what the experts predicted. And of course the inherently flawed foundation of the whole under/over concept is that we’re supposed to assume the media experts are, in fact, experts. It’s not much different than the stereotyping and prejudices we exercise in everyday life. If we say you’re bad, you’re bad. If you turn out to be good, it’s because you’re performing above your head â€“ a.k.a. overachieving â€“ not possibly because we were just wrong for saying you were bad.
My point is, don’t believe anything you read this week about Louisville being the overachievers of the Final Four. It’s simply not true.
The Cardinals are in New Orleans because they are one of the best four teams in college basketball right now â€“ or at least one of the four hottest teams. Louisville is not overachieving or underachieving; they are exactly where they belong. And by this time next week, they’ll prove it by winning the program’s third national championship.
Here’s how the Quick Red Machine will get it done:
BALANCE & OPTIONS
There are two ways to cast a basketball team whose marquee star is also its sixth-leading scorer. Either they’re a title threat because they’re deep and balanced, with more options in their weaponry than T.I. has in his basement … or they’re in trouble because they don’t have an identifiable go-to guy who can take over and win games by himself.
Junior point guard Peyton Siva is the star of the Cardinals. He’s the one on front of the media guide; the one whose name is mentioned first in pre-game shows and last in pre-game intros; the one who will be drawing Kemba Walker comparisons should he cut down the nets in New Orleans.
But Siva is averaging just 9.1 points per game, a number topped by five of his teammates â€“ including 6-11 center Gorgui Dieng (9.2 ppg), whose offensive game is so raw you can smell it from the cheap seats. Whereas the rest of the Final Four teams boast All-Americans and future lottery picks like Jared Sullinger, Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson, Louisville is led by a 5-11 defense-first PG that didn’t even make the All-Big East team; whose name is still buried in the second round of most NBA mock drafts.
But the fact that Siva (5.6 apg) doesn’t drop 20 points a night is not an indictment of his talent, rather a testament to the depth of scorers UL coach Rick Pitino puts on the floor. During the team’s current eight-game win streak, six different players have led the Cardinals in scoring. There’s Dieng and Siva; there’s Kyle Kuric (12.7 ppg), the 6-4 shooter/slasher who would remind me of Chris Herren even if he wasn’t White; Chris Smith (9.7 ppg), who inherited the same get-buckets gene as his older brother, J.R. Smith of the Knicks; Russ Smith (11.6 ppg), unrelated to Chris or J.R. but whose explosive/erratic style is purely J.R.; Chane Behanan (9.5 ppg), the freshman power forward who has improved every game in this tournament.
There are multiple 20-point scorers on this team – there just isn’t anybody who scores 20 a game. So who gets the ball when Louisville is down by two and needs a crucial bucket? I don’t know. But neither does the opposing defense.
BRICK (WALL) SQUAD
Run them up against advanced statistical metrics or just give them the eye test â€“ by any measure, Louisville has arguably the best defense of any team in the country. That defense recently shut down Michigan State for a whole game and Florida for a half, held New Mexico to 39 percent from the field and limited Davidson’s top scorer (the Southern Conference P.O.Y.) to five points.
Louisville’s full-court press is torture for teams with turnover-prone guards that aren’t deep (Kansas). Their 2-3 zone is tougher than a double-sided puzzle for teams without consistent outside shooters (Kentucky). Their man-to-man puts the clamps on slower teams without a lot of creative scorers (Ohio State). For any of the teams Louisville may face on its way to a national title, Pitino has a defensive game plan that can work.
Spearheading the defense will be Siva (1.8 spg), who comes from the same in-your-jersey Franklin High School (Seattle, Wash.) family tree as Venoy Overton and Jason Terry. Behind Siva is a mass of well-conditioned athletes with long limbs and a collective mindset mirroring Ray Lewis. Behind them stands Dieng, who blocks 3.2 shots per game.
Pitino is one of the greatest college coaches of all time. This is his sixth Final Four between three schools and across four decades. He’s won with loaded teams that had the pressure of being expected to win it all and he’s won with nothing-to-lose underdogs.
Whether or not you give Pitino the credit for convincing this Louisville team to believe in itself â€“ because we shouldn’t overlook a team’s ability to motivate each other â€“ no one can say Pitino’s team isn’t well-coached. They make the extra pass, they box out, they hustle, they play defense for 35 seconds of every possession, 40 minutes or more every night.
Almost every hoops analyst in the world would give Kentucky a near-unanimous advantage in a man-for-man breakdown against Louisville. That’s why almost nobody is picking Louisville to win Saturday’s semifinal. But at least one matchup clearly goes the way of the Cardinals: Pitino over John Calipari. And should he guide UL past UK, would you bet against Pitino in a showdown with Bill Self or Thad Matta? I wouldn’t.
That thing I said earlier about not buying into the concept of overachievers and underachievers? One of the best things Louisville has going for them is that we still do buy into it. So while the Cardinals continually hear that they’re not supposed to be here, it gives them a bigger chip on their shoulder than any team in the Final Four.
And yes, that means something this time of year.
Louisville spent the entire regular season overshadowed in their own conference by Syracuse’s success and UConn’s struggles. Not one of their players made the All-Big East first, second or third team. When ESPN polled 15 of its college hoops experts for their Final Four picks after Selection Sunday, nine picked Missouri to win the West Region, five picked Michigan State and one picked Florida. No one picked Louisville. Now no one outside of Louisville is picking Louisville to beat Kentucky, let alone win the two games needed for a national championship.
“We’re playing with house money because everybody wrote us off,” Chris Smith told reporters after the Cardinals beat Florida in the Elite Eight. “I just want to tell everybody, ‘Thank you for writing us off.'”
They aren’t overachieving, but Louisville has bought into a classic us-against-the-world ethos. I don’t like the world’s chances.
What is the key for Louisville to win this weekend?
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