- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Louisville won the championship in its one and only appearance in the American Athletic Conference tournament, beating UConn 71-61 Saturday at FedExForum. Here are five observations from the Cardinals' win:
1.Louisville passes the eye test with flying colors. Louisville dominated the American tournament, trailing for only 27 seconds (ironically, during a 61-point drubbing against Rutgers). Louisville coach Rick Pitino said immediately after the game that the Cardinals will be a No. 1 seed. But he pulled back after, saying in the postgame news conference that the Cardinals should be but won't be a No. 1 seed. If the committee were to give the Cardinals a 1-seed then it would be revamping the entire system. If you had just landed from the moon and saw this team the past week you wouldn't have thought there is a better team in the country.
But the season has to be put in context and Louisville doesn't look like it will have a nonconference win against the field. The Cardinals don't have a bad loss. But the numbers aren't in Louisville's favor with a .500 record against top-50 teams, seven nonconference games against teams below 100, 12 conference games against teams below 140. After the game, Pitino said that you can't blame the Cardinals for the schedule or the league but to blame football (I think that was a shot toward the breakup of the Big East). Still, no one is going to want to be in the same bracket with the Cardinals. Expect the weakest No. 1 to get a strong No. 2 Louisville in its region.
2. Louisville is a force to be reckoned with in conference tournament play. The Cardinals have won three straight postseason tournament titles -- two in the Big East and one in the American. The Cardinals have won all their conference tournament title games by double-digit points for the second straight season. Add to that Louisville’s two straight Final Four trips and one national championship, with a possibility for a repeat. Yet, for whatever reason, that is not being discussed much nationally.
The conference the Cardinals play in may have something to do with that, but Louisville deserves at least some talk of having built a budding dynasty. As he departed his postgame news conference, Pitino remarked that the Cardinals were heading to their ninth conference next season. He's not that far off. Louisville has been in the Missouri Valley, Metro, Conference USA, Big East, American and next season the ACC.
3. Russ Smith, the overshadowed senior, was named the American Conference tournament MVP. He didn't get player of the year in the conference. That went to UConn's Shabazz Napier. Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick was a possible selection and had a strong case over either player. Yet, Smith stood tall yet again with a conference title. He scored 42 points in the win over Rutgers and while he wasn't as dominant against UConn (19 points) he made winning plays.
Smith bought into being a leader in his senior season from the jump. He didn't leave for the NBA after last season, not just because he wasn't going to be a first-round pick, but as much because he enjoyed the college experience. Smith said after the game that he loved Louisville and appreciated getting an education, the friends he has made in the city and at the school and the whole college experience. He said earlier in the week that he learned how to read screens, where to be on the court and became a much better basketball player playing for Pitino. Smith gets it and will leave quite a legacy at Louisville when he's through after the NCAA tournament.
4. Montrezl Harrell will be one of the toughest matchups in the NCAA tournament. Memphis coach Josh Pastner said Harrell is a difference-maker. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said Harrell is the most versatile player on the team, someone who can defend, rebound and is an all-around talent. Harrell has made everyone forget about Chane Behanan. Harrell has been sensational and not just because of his dunking. He finished with 22 points, 11 boards and 3 blocks in the title game.
Pitino called him the best power forward in the country. He may be the hardest to guard on the weak side, on the break or in transition. A year ago, Pitino said Harrell was the best NBA talent he had on his team. That may be hard to argue against.
5. What’s the ceiling for UConn? The Huskies got rocked by Louisville last Saturday and while they were in the game during stretches this Saturday, they couldn't cut the deficit to under 10 when it mattered. But the Huskies didn't match up well with Louisville. Napier couldn't shake the Louisville perimeter, forcing most of his shots. He rarely had a good look and neither did Ryan Boatright. The bright spot for the Huskies this week was the play of Amida Brimah, who could be a major factor if the Huskies are to win a game or two in the NCAA tournament. The freshman big man has made quite a leap in his development this season. He must be a board man and create some balance for the Huskies to advance. UConn coach Kevin Ollie remained upbeat after the game and predicted a good run for the Huskies next week.
Napier said he never gave it much thought that the Huskies would be in the NCAA tournament after not being allowed to participate last season. But with Selection Sunday at hand, he is appreciating the opportunity to be in the tournament. That's why he remained in Storrs, Conn., when others did not. UConn still has a player who can carry the Huskies a round, but more important, if the complementary players like Brimah, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey perform well, then the Huskies have a real shot to be playing into the second weekend.