There hasn’t been a whole lot of chalk in the NCAA Tournament, but the top overall seed Louisville has had no trouble making it to the Final Four, as expected. Let’s take a closer look at the Cardinals, who remain the favorites to win the national championship.
How they got here:
The Cardinals were ranked second in the country to start the season, and won 16 of their first 17 games, eventually making their way to the number one spot in the polls. However, once they got there Louisville lost three games in a row against Syracuse, Villanova, and Georgetown. But the Cardinals didn’t hit the panic button. Since that three game skid they have lost just one game, an epic five overtime loss at Notre Dame, a game Louisville was in control of for 38 minutes. That game was nearly two months ago, as the Cardinals now hold a record of 33-5 and a 14-game winning streak after winning the Big East Tournament and getting to the Final Four almost effortlessly, as Louisville has won their four NCAA Tournament games by an average of 22 points.
Point guard Peyton Siva is the biggest key for the Cardinals at both ends of the floor. He’s not a great shooter, but he’s as quick as any guard in the country and can get in the lane and make plays. On defense, he’s almost always around the ball and his hands are always active and looking to create turnovers. Gorgui Dieng controls the paint for them at both ends. Defensively, he averages 2.5 shot blocks per game and altars countless other shots. On offense, he’s quite skilled for a big man, as he’s an adept passer that’s also capable of getting put backs and making mid-range jump shots if he’s left open. Russ Smith may be their most important offensive player. He is constantly looking to get shots up and make plays, almost to a fault. He averages 19 points per game and is capable of a lot more than that if defenses don’t pay close attention to him.
The Cardinals are among the best in the nation at getting out in transition, but when forced to play a half-court game they’re fairly average. Dieng doesn’t have a lot of one-on-one moves in the post that can lead to baskets; Siva is quick enough to get in the lane, but he’s not big enough or strong enough to finish at the basket against a good defensive center; and outside of Luke Hancock the Cardinals don’t have a lot of consistent outside shooters, as even Smith doesn’t shoot that high of a percentage from the perimeter. Louisville can be too dependent on their defense fueling their offense, which generally works for them, but if they aren’t getting easy baskets that come in transition, the Cardinals can struggle to score. If an opposing team can avoid live-ball turnovers and take smart shots, they’ll make Louisville execute in their half-court offense, which is the best chance to beat them.
Rick Pitino has Louisville in the Final Four for the second year in a row and for the third time in 12 seasons. He also made three trips to the Final Four as the head coach of Kentucky, so he’s no stranger to this stage of the tournament. Pitino will soon be a hall-of-famer, and like his one-time mentor Jim Boeheim, he’s chasing his second national championship, although he remains a considerable distance behind Boeheim in both coaching stature and career wins. As an in-game coach, few are as good is Pitino at switching up defenses mid-game and at times mid-possession. His team has breezed to the Final Four, winning comfortably in all four of its games, but the competition steps up a notch at this point in the season, and Pitino will have to prove that he can push the right buttons that will lead his team to victory, and do so as the favorites to win it all.
They will win the title because:
They have such a disruptive defense that’s almost impossible for opposing teams to handle for 40 minutes. Even if their press doesn’t create a lot of turnovers, it can take teams out of their offensive rhythm and tire them out by the end of the game, and once teams get tired, the Cardinals know how to take advantage. Louisville can switch seamlessly from a full-court press, to a man-to-man, to a matchup zone to confuse teams and cause problems. It’s awfully difficult to be aggressive against Louisville’s defense and score enough points to win without turning the ball over and fueling the Cardinals' transition game, which is when they’re at their best. Louisville hasn’t lost a game in nearly two months, and they haven’t lost a game that didn’t go to five overtimes since January 26th, and there are a lot of reasons why that’s been the case. In the year of ultimate parody in the NCAA Tournament, Louisville has been the only top seed to survive to this point, and it’s because they are the nation’s best team, which is why they’ll be the only team left standing Monday night.