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Wednesday, March 20, 2013
How No. 1 will fall: Louisville

By Myron Medcalf

Editor’s note: Wednesday morning in the Nation blog, Myron Medcalf is examining the worst-case scenarios for each of the four 1-seeds. Keep in mind: This is not necessarily his prediction -- simply the most likely cause of a loss before the Final Four for these particular teams.

I began to believe in Louisville in New Orleans. The Cardinals had dismissed their shaky finish in the regular season and earned the Big East tournament title prior to last season’s Final Four run.

You could see that they had it all.

Gorgui Dieng inside. The leadership of Peyton Siva. The unpredictable savant known as Russ Smith. A seasoned coach on the sideline.

Peyton Siva
Peyton Siva is crucial to Louisville's success in the NCAA tournament.
They had only one problem: a Kentucky team that every respectable metric deemed one of the best teams in recent college basketball history.

I saw the Cardinals again in December when they faced the Wildcats in Louisville. Made me even more of a believer.

I think the Cardinals will win the 2013 national championship. But they’re also in the Midwest Region, the toughest region in the field. Multiple teams in that portion of the bracket could ruin Louisville’s aspirations. It’s a gauntlet without any guarantees for any team.

But solving the Cardinals is the greatest quandary in the 2013 NCAA tournament. They’re No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. They outscore their opponents in the paint by an average of 10.4 PPG (fourth in the nation), according to ESPN Stats & Information. They average 22.9 PPG off turnovers, the top mark among the "big six" schools, per ESPN Stats & Information.

Any team that’s going to beat Louisville in the Big Dance will have to be a team that limits its turnovers. Louisville breaks down teams with its pressure. There’s nothing traditional about Louisville’s zone. Rick Pitino uses so many variations that it sometimes appears to be more of a man-to-man attack. To beat the Cardinals, an opponent will need a coaching staff that meticulously plans for the different looks his team will see against the Cardinals, and that same team will need a point guard who won’t panic as Louisville executes its defensive barrage.

There is certainly hope, though. Both Syracuse and Villanova shot 46 percent from the 3-point line in their wins over the Cardinals. They found the creases and hit shots just inside the arc and beyond it. It’s difficult to get buckets in the post with Dieng (2.5 BPG) in there. But a successful opponent will have to attack the most critical component of Pitino’s offense. Dieng has committed four or more fouls in five games this season. Louisville went 3-2 in those matchups.

Overall, you just can’t waste offensive possessions against a team that’s as defensively astute as the Cardinals.

A team that defeats Louisville in the Big Dance will have to push the Cardinals’ offense, too. Their ability to score in a transition (a by-product of their vicious defense) masks their struggles in half-court situations.

Siva has committed 17 turnovers in Louisville’s five losses. He went 15-for-45 from the field in those games. He’s such a catalyst for the Cardinals that any opponent’s chances of defeating them will increase whenever he’s not in a rhythm.

Smith is brilliant but he’s also uncertain in stretches. Sometimes he does too much in desperate situations. It’s just who he is. And that’s what terrifies every Cardinals fan in America. Louisville won’t win a national title without him. But Smith has to play with poise to lead the Cardinals to the national title.

Beating Louisville demands a variety of tools. It’s not simple. That’s why the Cardinals have won 10 consecutive games. They’ve defeated the Big East’s best during that run.

But Louisville will fall when (if) some team -- somehow -- just has the better night, which hasn’t happened often in 2012-13.