Cards could enter ACC with back-to-back titles
Posted March 26, 2014
By the time Louisville plays its first basketball game as an ACC member next season, the Cardinals could be coming off back-to-back national championships.
The mathematical odds are against that development, of course. Since the end of the UCLA dynasty in the 1970s, only Duke (1991 and ’92) and Florida (2006 and ’07) have successfully defended an NCAA Tournament title.
Indiana, which went 31-1 in 1975 and 32-0 in 1976, couldn’t pull it off. Neither could North Carolina in 1983 with a lineup that included Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Matt Doherty.
On the other hand, only 16 teams are left in this national championship chase, and Louisville (31-5, Midwest No. 4 seed) is a slight favorite to bounce rival Kentucky (26-10, No. 8 seed) on Friday in the Indianapolis semifinals (9:45 p.m., WRAL-TV and 99.9 FM The Fan).
The winner will face either 2nd-seeded Michigan or 11th-seeded Tennessee on Sunday for a ticket to the North Texas Final Four.
So at least on paper, Louisville hardly rates as the longest shot among those left in the regional bracket.
Cards coach Rick Pitino starts five players – seniors Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and Steve Van Treese, junior Chris Jones and sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell from Tarboro – who helped in last season’s 82-76 title win over Michigan. So did sixth man Wayne Blackshear.
Compared to Kentucky’s five freshman starters, tournament experience obviously favors Louisville.
With so many seniors and the 6-foot-8, 235-pound Harrell projected as a likely high NBA pick if he goes early, the quick assumption might be that Pitino and the Cards will arrive in the ACC during a stressful rebuilding season.
Don’t bet on it.
In his 13 seasons at Louisville, Pitino has averaged 26 wins per season by doing a masterful job of personnel plugging and patching.
In Conference USA (four seasons), then the Big East (eight seasons) and in the American Athletic Conference this season, Pitino has been just as consistently effective as he was in eight seasons at Kentucky.
And at Louisville, Pitino hardly has won big with raw talent. It’s more like the opposite, in fact. Currently, there are only three ex-Cards on NBA rosters, none of them starterss. His most talented player arguably has been forward Terrence Williams, who has been on and off several NBA rosters since getting drafted by the Nets in 2010.
That’s something to keep in mind when Pitino’s first ACC starting group may be the seemingly unimposing group of Blackshear (6-5), Jones (5-10), Terry Rozier (6-1), Mangok Mathiang (6-10) and freshman Jay Johnson (6-8). There’s not an all-ACC contender among those five and the five-man recruit group is rated well off the pace of Duke and UNC.
Harrell, who played at North Edgecombe and Hargrave (Va.) Prep, isn’t a lock to leave early. He’s averaging 14.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and would be a strong all-ACC preseason candidate even though he makes less than 50 percent of his free throws.
But with or without Harrell, the Cards’ playing style won’t change a great deal. They’ll show a balanced offense that relies heavily on 3-point shooting and follow shots, combined with a quick defense that’s capable of playing baseline-to-baseline for long stretches.
How the ACC will work the 2014-15 schedule remains to be seen. Logically, Louisville would play a lineup roughly the same as exiting Maryland did this past season.
And as much as fans and ESPN might want to see the Cards face UNC and Duke twice in the regular season, there has to be a limit to how much top-tier cannibalizing the league will allow.
But Louisville won’t be a timid newcomer. The Cards will do some room rattling right from the start.