College Basketball Nation: Gorgui Dieng

HancockRobert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsLuke Hancock is the first bench player to be the Final Four's most outstanding player.

ATLANTA -- Beginning exactly one year ago today, we've known, or thought we've known, what Louisville was. Louisville was the best defensive team in the country.

That's usually as far as it went. The Cardinals dominated defensively in 2012, and after their hyper-stingy, brick-compensating defense carried them to an ugly-but-effective Final Four run and nearly every player of note returned for 2012-13, it was pretty easy to peg Rick Pitino's team.

Louisville would struggle to score. It would guard like crazy. Its fans would hope that was enough.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Atlanta: The Cardinals started scoring. And scoring. And scoring. By the time the confetti covered the Georgia Dome floor Monday night, by the time Peyton Siva and Russ Smith and the rest of the national champions finished their thrilling 82-76 victory over Michigan and their One Shining Moment, it was time to be real about a couple of things.

The first: That was a great basketball game.

The second: Louisville was a great offensive team, too.

"You know, a lot of times when you get to the Final Four, you get to a championship, the game's not always great, not always pretty," Pitino said Monday night. "This was a great college basketball game.

"They are a tremendous offensive team. Fortunately for us, when we started this tournament, and Luke [Hancock] started playing a lot more minutes, we became a great half-court offensive basketball team. And tonight was as good as it gets."

The man speaks the truth. In defiance of trends, easy characterizations and well-entrenched narrative, Louisville won the 2012-13 national title because its offense was good enough to best the best offensive team in the country. Here's how.

Two words: Luke Hancock. You don't have to dig too deep into the scouting reports to figure out why Hancock was named the 2013 NCAA tournament most outstanding player or why he was so crucial to Louisville's offense in its two Georgia Dome wins. In two Final Four games, Hancock shot 8-of-10 from 3-point range. On Monday night, he went a perfect 5-of-5, and if that wasn't already good enough, each shot carried with it the maximum possible impact. The first four came during the final minutes of the first half against Michigan, after Spike Albrecht had replaced unanimous national player of the year Trey Burke, who was saddled with his second foul at the 11-minute mark.

Instead of scraping by without its star, Michigan surged, because Albrecht had one of the most insane -- or at least one of the most unlikely -- halves in tournament history. He poured in 17 points in 16 minutes on 6-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-4 from 3. Albrecht's final bucket of the half, a layup with 3:55 remaining, gave the Wolverines a 33-21 lead. Michigan looked like it could get to the half with a double-digit lead despite having Burke for just six total minutes. Pitino took a timeout.

What happened in the next three minutes would define the rest of the game. At 3:33, Hancock made two free throws. At 2:59, he made a 3-pointer from the right wing. At 2:38, he made another, same spot. At 1:53, he made another. At 0:59, another. He had cut Michigan's Albrecht-infused lead to just 36-35. It was like Albrecht never happened.

Hancock's play in the second half was just as important. He made three assists in the middle of the half, he sank his fifth 3 to put Louisville up 10 with 3:27 left to play and his two free throws at the 29-second mark pushed the Cardinals' threatened lead back to six points, a deficit insurmountable even for Burke and the Wolverines.

Hancock was the hero in the final minutes of Saturday's shaky win over Wichita State, too, and so his final line for the Final Four weekend looked like this: 42 points in 62 minutes on 11-of-15 from the field, 12-of-17 from the free throw line, 8-of-10 from beyond the arc. You can empty the thesaurus of adjectives and not come close to describing how good, or how important, he was. And all off the bench.

Best of all, Hancock was able to post that performance for the ages in front of his ailing father, an emotional angle to the George Mason transfer's already remarkable story.

"It's been a long road," Hancock said. "There's really no way to describe how I feel that my dad was here."

On Monday night, after the Louisville players finished addressing the media, the NCAA moderator read off a remarkable stat: Hancock had become the first bench player in the history of the tournament to win most outstanding player. When he heard his name, he paused. As the moderator finished reading the stat, Hancock nodded nonchalantly -- as if to say: Yep, that sounds about right. It couldn't have been more fitting.

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Siva carved up Michigan's defense on his way to 18 points and five assists.
Thing is? Louisville's offense was already really good. Hancock's description-defying Final Four performance would boost any offense regardless of the context, but it also could serve to obscure the fact that the Cardinals had been great on the offensive end of the floor for much of the season and certainly throughout the NCAA tournament.

To wit: In their first three tournament games against North Carolina A&T, Colorado State and Oregon, the Cardinals posted 1.18 points per possession. Hancock scored just 17 of them, in 18, 19 and 22 minutes, respectively. And, as ESPN Insider John Gasaway wrote in advance of the title game Insider, those points came despite opponents turning it over on just 18 percent of their possessions. Those games weren't of the narrative-friendly, Louisville-forces-turnovers-and-that's-how-it-scores variety. They were just great offensive performances, pure and simple.

That said, that doesn't mean Louisville wasn't happy to force turnovers whenever possible; on Saturday night, after a near-flawless first 34 minutes, Wichita State's seven turnovers in the final six minutes were a huge factor in the Cards' eventual comeback win.

But Monday was a different story: Michigan, the least turnover-prone team in the country, turned it over at that pre-Final Four rate (18.5 percent) and scored 1.17 points per trip. Louisville scored 1.26. And there you have it.

Oh, and before we forget: Russ Smith was awesome. No doubt about it, Smith had one of his worst games of the season Monday night. He finished 3-of-16 from the field, including 1-of-6 from 3. He committed the usual handful of questionable and/or poorly timed fouls, and his turnovers, particularly one in crunch time, gave the impression that Bad Russ, the dark side of Russdiculous, was once more rearing his ugly head.

That would have been sad. Smith has had an immense individual season on both ends of the floor -- the rare star as good defensively as he was scoring. Smith averaged 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game this season, and managed to post an offensive rating of 110.0 despite high usage (32.1) and shot (32.6) rates (which typically hurt players' efficiency). There were few sights in the game as fun as Smith tearing the ball away from an opponent, deciding in a split-second -- no matter what the defense -- that he was getting it to the rim and then doing exactly that, usually in mind-blowing fashion.

But Smith's Russ-iest moments came when the lights were brightest, none more so in the regular season than in South Bend, Ind., where the Cardinals lost in five overtimes. Smith's silly-play-to-crucial-moment ratio (which is a real stat I just made up) achieved previously unseen levels that night, when everyone tuned in to the featured prime-time game and learned all they thought they needed to know about Smith.

The Final Four was like that, too. Russdiculous didn't play well Saturday and was even worse Monday, and many casual fans might remember his season for that. But for most of the past five months, his breakneck genius was the main reason Louisville's offense worked so well. It would be a shame to forget that.

The Cardinals didn't win with defense. They didn't need to. There were many impressive things about this Louisville team: the way it rallied around injured guard Kevin Ware and won the national title without him, how quickly Gorgui Dieng turned from a raw shot-blocker into an all-around player, Siva's screen-exploiting ability to slice defenses in half, Chane Behanan's strongman work on the offensive boards, how rapidly it turned defense into offense, how casually it erased daunting deficits, how Pitino often seemed to move his matchup zone around like telekinetic putty, unleashing traps and shifts like a wild-eyed conductor.

But perhaps the most impressive thing of all is this: In 2012, Louisville finished the season ranked No. 1 in efficiency defense and No. 105 on offense. In 2013, it again wielded the nation's No. 1 defense.

This time, over 35 wins and five losses, the Cardinals' offense scored 1.18 points per trip -- good for fifth-best in the country. And on Monday night, good enough to beat the best at its own game.

Afterward, Pitino called his team's exhilarating victory the product of "two great offensive teams doing battle."

He was right. Lo and behold, for everything else Louisville was this season, it was that too -- a great offensive team. And now it's the national champion.

What a mighty difference 12 months can make.

ATLANTA -- The Louisville Cardinals are your 2013 national champions after beating Michigan 82-76.

Overview: It was everything a national title game should be. Great offense, great pace, great performances, great stories and, having withstood all of it, a great national champion: Louisville.

An amazing and surprising first half was followed by a more conventional, but no less entertaining, second. It was one that kept the intrigue bubbling right up to the final minute.

Luke Hancock finished with 22 points on 5-of-6 shooting, Peyton Siva added 18, Chane Behanan pushed in 15, and the Cardinals won their third national title, their first since 1986, and made coach Rick Pitino the only man in Division I NCAA hoops history to win a title at two schools.

The key sequence began with five minutes to play. Trey Burke's block on a Siva fast break at the 5:09 mark -- a clean play, and an incredible one -- was whistled a foul. Siva made both free throws, and then Gorgui Dieng finished a secondary post move on the next possession as the Cardinals pushed their lead to 71-64. Dieng hit another old-school hook shot at 4:13, and then Hancock made another 3-pointer -- his fifth of the game -- to make it 76-66 with 3:05 left to play.

But Michigan didn't go away. A bad Russ Smith shot and a turnover, coupled with some quick Wolverines free throws, brought the lead back down to 78-74 with 1:11 on the clock.

Michigan eventually fouled Hancock with 29.8 seconds left to play. He made two -- the biggest shots of the game were all Hancock's, these included -- and the Cardinals closed out the win in the final seconds.

The finish followed a first half that will last in college hoops lore. Burke, the unanimous national player of the year, picked up his second foul with 11:09 left in the half. He was replaced by Spike Albrecht, a 5-foot-11, largely unrecruited backup. Michigan coach John Beilein had to fight even his own staff members to get them to agree to take on Albrecht. He entered the game averaging 1.8 points in 7.6 minutes per game. In Burke's stead, Albrecht proceeded to have an absolutely legendary half: 17 points, 6-of-7 from the field (including 4-of-4 from 3-point territory) in 16 minutes. He had a mix of confident shooting and never-before-seen drives to the rim, all with the player of the year on the bench. Michigan shot 14-of-28 in the half and, with just 3:33 left, led 33-21.

That was roughly as mind-bending as what came next: four Hancock 3s on four straight possessions, all from the same spot at the right wing. Hancock was the hero of Louisville's national semifinal win over Wichita State on Saturday night, and he was here, too, bringing the staggered Cardinals back from the Albrecht-induced abyss.

Turning point: Albrecht's arrival in the game would be a good place to start, and Hancock's four straight 3s turned the game and saved Louisville from having to fight back from a devastating deficit with Burke itching to get off the bench. But the game was essentially level for most of the second half; it would need to be decided late.

After a back-and-forth sequence in the final minutes, Hancock's free throws truly sealed the game.

Key player: Hancock. Most of Hancock's production came during the first half, but you can't possibly overlook the importance of those four 3s. Without them, Louisville would have been facing a drastic deficit with Burke re-entering the game in the second 20. And Hancock's second-half additions -- a fifth 3 and those free throws -- were the most important shots of the second half.

Key stat: Louisville shot 8-of-16 from 3 and 18-of-23 from the free throw line. The former helped the Cards recover from an early deficit; the latter allowed them to finish the win late.
Mitch McGary/Gorgui DiengUSA TODAY SportsLouisville and Michigan are fighting for the title thanks in large part to Gorgui Dieng and Mitch McGary.
ATLANTA -- Gorgui Dieng stumbled through his freshman year in the 2010-11 season.

The player who will make millions once he turns pro in a few weeks -- per Rick Pitino -- resembled most first-year talents then.

That season involved more confusion than confidence. He missed the first two months of team workouts awaiting the outcome of an appeal after an NCAA ruling that declared him ineligible for the first portion of the season.

Since then, he has become a defensive and rebounding force for a Louisville team that will face Michigan on Monday night at the Georgia Dome in the Cardinals' first title game since 1986. Dieng has made 81 starts for the Cardinals in his career. The raw big man from two years ago is now an elite player averaging 9.8 points, 9.4 rebounds (led the Big East in rebounding), 1.3 steals and 2.5 blocks.

And as he contends with a surging Mitch McGary (16.0 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 11 steals, six blocks, eight assists in five NCAA tournament games) -- a freshman who has competed like a lottery pick in recent weeks -- he is certain that those extra games, battles and experiences will give him an edge in one of the most critical matchups in the national title game.

“I think [experience] will be [a factor]. I think for maybe one play or something, little, little things,” Dieng said. “It is going to be important on rotations and hustle plays, just little things. Like Coach Pitino always tells me, you can have a good freshman but sometimes they will make mistakes.”

McGary, who will turn 21 in June, agrees that Dieng has the advantage in the matchup thanks to his experience as a player who’s competing in his second consecutive Final Four with Louisville.

“He is a great shot-blocker, great length in his arms and is very athletic, too,” McGary said. “I think it is going to be difficult. They play that matchup zone, which will be difficult for us. He has played so many more games than me, having gone through this process before. … Having a few more games under his belt could give him a little bit of an edge.”

[+] EnlargeMitch McGary
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsMitch McGary's play has surged this postseason, and he is one of the reasons the Wolverines are playing in the championship game.
But McGary’s journey from rugged, rumbling 6-foot-10 big man to the polished athlete who led the Wolverines in assists over Syracuse suggests he should be judged according to his most recent achievements and not by his age. Young players tend to shed labels in March and April.

After months of acclimation and adjustment, the playbook is more digestible now. Cuts, ball screens and spacing make more sense, too.

McGary’s evolution, however, is still surprising because he seems to have grasped every basketball tenet coaches preach to young big men in the most significant chapter of the season.

That’s why the tape from the first four months of the season might be meaningless for Pitino as he prepares his team to deal with the player who has transformed Michigan into a more balanced squad and a national championship contender. Opponents always had backcourt dilemmas whenever they faced the Wolverines (see: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.).

But McGary’s late maturation has turned John Beilein’s program into a more ferocious threat, especially inside.

Some might assume that Burke, Hardaway, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith would dictate the final score of the national championship matchup.

But coaches and players from both teams acknowledge that Louisville’s ability to push McGary off the block and limit his impact on the defensive and offensive boards will matter. The Cardinals’ matchup zone could get confused if Michigan's inside-outside attack persists.

Plus, McGary is as strong as any player Louisville has encountered in the tournament. That bulk has been a challenge for some of the top defenses in America -- VCU, Kansas and Florida -- to overcome in the Big Dance.

“Mitch McGary, in the beginning of the year, was a good player who had really good potential. Now he’s a great player, one of the premier big guys in our country,” Pitino said. “So he’s not a freshman, doesn’t play like a freshman. Nobody on their team does.”

The Wolverines know Dieng is the cornerstone of a defensive attack that has ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. Dieng’s scrappiness inside and shot-blocking ability have helped the Cardinals win 15 games in a row.

Multiple players are responsible for Louisville’s unyielding defense. But Dieng’s ability to contest and alter shots is certainly tied to Louisville outscoring its opponents by 19 points in the paint entering the Final Four.

“We’ve gotta be physical, keeping them off the boards, and try to get as many second-chance opportunities as we can because they’ve got great shot-blockers and they play good defense, so it’s important for us to follow in there and get some easy points on putbacks,” Jordan Morgan said.

Dieng and McGary affect games with contrasting styles.

But their quests to the final games of the season feature similarities.

Both players needed time to finally portray the tools they’ve used to lift their programs to this stage.

A year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire after high school molded McGary on and off the floor, he said. At the time, he had struggled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Prep school, he said, allowed him to develop ways to manage it while enhancing his athletic skills. Talents that have led many to doubt his recent declaration that he will return to school for another season.

“It helped me grow as a player and off the court,” he said. “It helped me build a lot more character. On the court, it helped me with making better decisions, focusing a lot more. I was going through the ADHD and wasn’t handling it very well. I just tried to focus on the little things that I could, and I turned to Brewster and it helped me a lot.”

Dieng understands that growth process and the development it incites. So he’s far less focused on his advantage in experience than he is concerned about the talents of a big man who’s been a handful for veteran post players for weeks.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Dieng said. “He’s a good basketball player. If it gets to the point that experience is going to separate us, I am willing to do my best to stop him and protect the paint."
"Digging In" is our in-depth look at what makes each of the Final Four teams tick, with an assist from the coaches who scout and prep for these teams all season. Our final scout: Louisville.

How good is Louisville? Good enough to make opposing coaches downright conceptual.

That's not even my word. That's how Villanova assistant coach Billy Lange, who scouted the Cardinals for the Nova staff this season, described Thursday what he thought was the best approach to playing the Cardinals. We were talking about one specific aspect of Louisville's style -- in this case its amorphous matchup-zone defense -- and Lange was explaining that the Cardinals are so good on that end of the floor, and so able to switch defenses on a whim, that you can't really devise a game plan with sets and quick-hitters the way you can most normal defenses. You have to settle for giving your players broad concepts -- protect the ball, make the extra pass, penetrate and kick -- and hope they can get it from Point A to Point B without being micromanaged.

That was just the defense, but the more we talked, the more I thought this might be the underappreciated key to Louisville's tidal burst through the final two months of its season: It reduces opponents to guesswork. You can't really scheme against the Cardinals the way you can other teams, because they aren't like any other team.

Louisville's high ball screens aren't just effective; the Cardinals can attack at any angle, sometimes from one second to the next. You can play brilliant defense on Russ Smith and force him to shoot some freak-show 18-foot floater and, because it is Russ Smith, it is just as likely to go in. Its press and matchup zone defenses aren't just great, they're unpredictable, and the best way to attack them -- by beating Louisville across half court and using odd-man advantages to get easy shots in the press break -- is also the best way to play into coach Rick Pitino's hands.

(The more we talked, the more I was reminded of the scene in "The Dark Knight" when that accountant tries to blackmail Batman [awesome idea, by the way; HE'S BATMAN GUY], and I practically saw Pitino smile the Morgan Freeman smile: "Your opponent is a lightning-quick defensive behemoth that does its best scoring work off turnovers … and your plan is to play up-tempo against us? Good luck!")

"I really don't think you can overprepare," Lange said. "I think you have to get your guys in a mindset where you tell them, 'We're going to play together off of concepts and instincts.'

"If you get robotic against them, they're going to eat you alive," Lange said. "They're going to kick your [butt]. I mean they'll just straight-up kick your [butt]."

So: How does a coach prepare for the unprepare-able? While you decide whether or not that's actually a word (it's not), let's dig in.

When Louisville has the ball

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
AP Photo/Michael ConroyLimiting the space Peyton Siva (3) gets coming off a high ball screen can slow Louisville's offense.
1. Guard the high ball screen well -- or as well as possible. Louisville's best and most-used asset on the offensive end is its guards, Peyton Siva and Smith, and its go-to offensive play is the spread-floor high ball screen. Everyone moves to the perimeter, Gorgui Dieng comes up top, and Smith and Siva read the angles and attack the defense relentlessly. There are all the usual ball-screen decision-tree issues to worry about here -- do we hedge, do we play under, how much help do we give away from the ball -- but the biggest challenge, Lange said, is how unpredictable the angles become. "They get you really spread, what they do a great job of is Dieng will run out and adjust the angle of the screen at the last second," Lange said. "It's not predictable; you have a hard time deciding which way the ball is going to go." The key, Lange said, is for a team to be ready to react either way, and then make sure neither Smith or Siva sees daylight when he comes off that screen. "When they come off that angle, Siva can not see space, because if he feels that way he's much more aggressive coming off," he said. "Same with Smith."

The spread pick-and-roll stuff isn't actually at its best when the ball handler ends up taking a shot -- Louisville scored only 310 points when the pick-and-roll ball handler ended the 433 possessions in Synergy's database from this season -- but what it does do is create angles and matchup problems, and Siva especially loves to get a head full of steam and dump off to Chane Behanan for easy finishes on the baseline.

2. Don't let Russ get you down. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this Louisville team is the distance Smith has traveled from last season. In March 2012, he was a lovable kook -- an oblivious goofball just as likely to hit a big shot as he was to make an inexplicable turnover. This season, Smith has morphed into a bona fide star and thoroughly underrated player-of-the-year candidate whose offensive attack has managed to become more lethal and consistent without losing any of that jittery je ne sais quoi that made it so hard to defend in the first place. It's a microcosm of Louisville's season: How do you prepare to guard a guy for whom everyone else's bad shot is merely Russ being Russ?

"There are two things you can try to do," Lange said. "The first is work really really hard to not let him catch the ball. The second is, when he does catch the ball, turn him into a contested 3-point jump-shooter. And if he makes his first couple of 3s, you don't panic and press up on him, because I still think he can shoot them out of games if he falls in love with the 3-point shot."

This is much easier said than done, of course, because Smith is so quick to get past defenders and so herky-jerky when he does. Plus he's lethal on the fast break -- he scored 1.171 points per trip on transition plays this season, which were his most frequent (28.5 percent) play type -- and can be perfectly well-defended and still make the kind of crazy Euro-step bank shots that had Duke defenders hanging their heads Sunday evening.

"When he gets a turnover and he's running the court in transition, you're not stopping that," Lange said.

3. Take care of the ball. This doesn't file neatly under "when Louisville has the ball," but it is impossible to untie the Cardinals' offensive output from their defense, which has forced more turnovers (71) in the 2013 NCAA tournament tournament than any other team. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Louisville has scored 72 transition points in its first four games, the second-most in the field. Of those 72 transition points, Louisville has scored 37 (51.4 percent) off turnovers in the tournament, more than any other team in the field. So: If you want to stop Louisville's offense from scoring, at least get a shot to the rim. It's no guarantee, but it's certainly better than the alternative.

Plus, saying "take care of the ball" against Louisville's defense in the below section would have been way too obvious. I mean, duh.

4. Oh, and block out. Just a quick bonus point of emphasis here: The Cardinals rebound their misses at a top-20 rate this season, as Dieng and Behanan (and even Montrezl Harrell) are absolute beasts over the top on the offensive glass. The good news for Wichita State is that the Shockers are arguably the best rebounding team left in the tournament, so this isn't a real matchup woe. But it is worth noting.

Trademark set: Spread-court, adjusted-angle ball screen. "He's a great offensive coach, and they run plenty of other stuff," Lange said of Pitino and the Cardinals. "They run guys off back screens with shooters, they run some double-screen stuff almost la Allen Iverson. But that screen action is just really tough to defend, and when Dieng is popping and making those 15-footers, it's almost impossible."

When Louisville is on defense

1. Inbound the ball well against the press. This seems pretty basic, right? Louisville scores, so you take the ball out of the rim and throw it in to a guard, and then you try to bring it up the floor. Great. Easy. Except, you know, the exact opposite of that.

When Louisville is pressing, as it has on 49.8 percent of its defensive possessions in the tournament, how you inbound the ball might be the most important aspect of surviving pressure defense that swarms and smothers even the best ball handlers in the backcourt. This is not the kind of thing I would have thought of, which is probably (among myriad other reasons) why I don't get paid to coach basketball, but you could tell Lange had thought about it -- a lot.

"How are you inbounding the ball?" Lange said. "Are you inbounding it with your four or your five, or with a guard? Whatever you do, you can't do the same thing over and over, because they get accustomed to what you're doing and they start closing it down.

"The most important thing, however you decide to do it, is that you're catching it on the move," he said. "If you catch it with your back to half court and your chest to the baseline, you're already in trouble. You have to catch moving forward so you can get them chasing you right away."

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportRick Pitino can change his squad's defensive approach seemingly from possession to possession.
2. If you beat the pressure, attack. Congratulations! You've managed to make it past half court against Louisville's pressure defense! It's OK to take a brief moment to enjoy your accomplishment. Maybe write a self-congratulatory Facebook post. And then make an utterly crucial decision: Do you pull the ball back out and work your offense in the half court? Or do you attack?

The former option is the most conventional route. As I wrote above, when you're playing a team that likes to force turnovers and scoop long rebounds and score in transition, it would follow that your best bet is to slow the game down, work for a good shot in the half court, and try to keep the turnovers to an absolute minimum.

But the most conventional route is not always the best, particularly when you're a 10-point underdog (as Wichita State is) and you have a guard (Malcolm Armstead in particular) who is comfortable getting at the rim in 5–on-4s and 4-on-3s. And honestly, it might be the best strategy for everybody. Lange explains:

"Here's the thing: If you break the press and pull it back out, you are forcing yourself to play against two very good defenses," he said. "First you're playing against the press, and then you're playing against the matchup zone. Whereas if you can get them scrambling and chasing out of the press trap, and you have advantages, I think you've got to try to attack because you have a better chance to get a really good shot that you might not be able to get in the half court."

The numbers back this up: On the 16.8 percent of its defensive possessions when Louisville has allowed opponents to play in transition, those opponents are scoring 0.913 points per trip. In the half court, that number plummets to 0.706. It may seem anathema to try to get into a jumbled back-and-forth game with a team with Russ Smith and Peyton Siva in the backcourt, but it's probably your best shot.

3. Play conceptually in the half court. Pitino, being Pitino, won't just let you race across half court and get layups more than a few times before he decides to switch things up; whether you like it or not (I'm guessing not), you are going to have to play against Louisville's devastating matchup zone. Bummer, huh?

If you watch Louisville often, you can't help but notice how diverse its defensive approach can be. The Cardinals move and shift their zone from side to side to overplay a team's best scorer; they run good shooters off the 3-point arc and rely on Dieng's shot-blocking on the back line to force uncomfortable midrange shots; they spring any number of traps and sieges, which Pitino dials up from the sideline almost on command. (By the way: Watching Pitino coach this defense is one of the true joys in college hoops right now; it frequently looks as though he is telekinetically willing players into possession-specific positions, accompanied by a fittingly wide-eyed glare.) Point is, they're not good the way Syracuse is good -- where you know what you're facing and can scheme for it and just have to hope your shots go down. Louisville's half-court defense is good in a profoundly more frustrating way, because it can't be planned for.

"You will never see consistency from possession to possession in what they do," Lange said. "So if you go into it like, 'I watched them play against Marquette and they did this, so we're going to run a certain set against them' -- that's crazy. Don't do that.

"Have a couple of things your players can get into real quickly, run your set, and then if you don't have it, you've got to play conceptually," Lange said. "I don't think you can go into it robotic and programmed, like you're going to run your stuff. Because it just doesn't work."

Defensive style: Trapping press, token press, half-court matchup zone.

Takeaway: I have a pet theory -- that the best college basketball coaches set the terms of the game most advantageous to their teams, and then funnel all of their year-long recruiting, development and strategy into making sure they're setting the agenda each and every time they take the floor.

It is not easy to do this without, you know, possessing the basketball. But I don't think there's a better way to describe what Louisville (and Syracuse, for that matter) does to opposing offenses. They force you to play them, and never the other way around.

And then there is the other issue: Even if you handle all of the pressure and take care of the ball and get good shots and hang with Louisville for 20, 25, 30, 35 minutes … all it takes is one or two possessions -- a long rebound here, a turnover in the backcourt there -- for them to speed you up, get you rattled, and mercilessly bury you.

"Three points goes to nine for them faster than any team in the country," Lange said. "If they were a more consistent 3-point shooting team, they would have obliterated college basketball this year. Just obliterated it. They're on another level the way they're playing right now.

"You can't play the clock against them, you can't get cute. You just have to play it all the way to the end, stay focused, and hope you have a chance late."

And this is why Louisville is the overwhelming favorite to win the 2013 national title: After all is said and done, the best strategy against the Cardinals is "do your best and hope things go well."

There is no more ringing endorsement than that.
1. The NCAA's random date of April 16 to declare for the NBA draft isn't pressuring a number of players into making quick decisions. Coaches are now savvy to the date as being meaningless. That's why Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk may wait to decide until the NBA's own early-entry deadline of April 28. Olynyk is probably going to be the same player in the NBA whether he declares next season or this. He is a Wooden All-America and, if he were to return, would be one of the contenders for player of the year. Missouri's Phil Pressey is also weighing a similar decision over the next few weeks. A number of players haven't outlined their intentions but have plenty of time, like Miami's Shane Larkin, Kansas' Ben McLemore, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Georgetown's Otto Porter, Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, Syracuse's C.J. Fair and Michael Carter-Williams, Louisville's Russ Smith as well as Indiana's Cody Zeller. Cal's Allen Crabbe joined the list of draftees earlier Wednesday. I fully expect Indiana's Victor Oladipo, Louisville's Gorgui Dieng, UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Michigan's Trey Burke to declare soon. No official word out of Connecticut, but the staff is anticipating -- at this point -- that guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright will return (smart move if it happens, since they don't have an NBA home to go to next season).

2. The Big Ten suddenly got incredibly younger with this week's two coaching hires -- Northwestern announcing Chris Collins and Minnesota tabbing Richard Pitino. The under-40 club will give the league a new look. The two take over programs that are striving for consistency, but both desperately need an upgrade in facilities to hang with the big boys. Collins and Pitino will need to use their youthful enthusiasm to build momentum since the dollars aren't in place for facilities they were used to -- Collins was at Duke and Pitino at Louisville and Florida before his stop at Florida International. Northwestern had been looking at Collins for quite some time. But Pitino was clearly a new name for Minnesota in the past week as athletic director Norwood Teague looked for an off-the-grid-type hire like he made at Virginia Commonwealth. Pitino got off to an impressive start in his coaching career at FIU with the upset of Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt tournament and a chance to earn the league's automatic NCAA tournament berth. Now he'll face his toughest challenge of his career. He has a brand name in basketball, which carries weight, but will need to put together a strong staff to quickly earn the trust of his players this spring and summer. This can work at both places. Memphis, for example, has been a soaring success under Josh Pastner. Pastner led the Tigers to conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances as a young, vibrant assistant-turned-head-coach of a major program. Collins was a fit at Northwestern so there's no issue there. But give Pitino a chance to see if this could work.

3. Old Dominion looked like it was set to go to former Western Kentucky and Georgia coach Dennis Felton before the Monarchs and athletic director Wood Selig tabbed American's Jeff Jones. This hire came out of left field, but might end up being one of the better fits. Jones played and coached at Virginia and should be able to recruit well in the fertile Tidewater area. Jones had made American a consistent Patriot League contender, which isn't easy to do in a conference where Bucknell and Lehigh are the anchors. ODU knows who it is and wanted to gravitate toward a coach that made sense. This hire does.
Four for Four is our quick look at a few things you need to know right here and now about the 2013 Final Four. We did it last April too, but I can’t remember why the introduction was so long.

"Guards win in the tournament."

There are a lot of cliches in sports, and pretty much all of them drive me crazy -- grit, toughness, any and all war-related analogies, we're taking it one day at a time, we move on to the next play, etc. -- mostly because they often make it maddeningly difficult to get to the actual thing itself. How are you taking it one day at a time? What kind of discipline does that entail? How can you move on to the next play when failure is so fresh in your mind? What about high-level athletes fosters that mindset?

But if we're going to use a cliche, it better at least be true, rather than a nonsense series of words designed to prevent anyone from having to actually say anything. Many seemingly pedestrian cliches began as simple, obvious truths.

Here's one: Good guards win in the NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeTrey Burke
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesMichigan's Trey Burke is proof that elite guard play can be a huge advantage in the NCAA tournament.
It is easy to bristle at this, because it feels like the basketball equivalent of some of baseball's silliest arguments. Actually, no, I don't want that gritty guy who bunts for a living and plays chill music in the clubhouse; just give me the best players, please.

Thing is? The best players in this year's Final Four most frequently happen to be guards.

  • Trey Burke isn't just the best player of the tournament, or the best guard, he is the national player of the year. He's just … complete. He scores efficiently when he needs to, he drives and kicks to one of the Wolverines' number of shooters, he handles, he hits step-back jumpers (not all of them as crazy as Kansas, but still). Mitch McGary has made Michigan a legitimately challenging physical proposition on the front line, but Burke has had this offense humming pretty much all season.

  • Russ Smith and Peyton Siva lead the way for Louisville, not only by attacking and scoring and starting every play on the offensive end, but by being some of the handsiest and most unrelenting steals-creators in all of college basketball. When those two create turnovers, particularly in the backcourt, Louisville's offensive efficiency soars.

  • Then there's Syracuse, which features one of the nation's best assist men in guard Michael Carter-Williams -- whose 6-6 frame has always screamed "shooting guard" but whose innate passing ability has made him one of the more unguardable forces in the tournament -- paired alongside savvy vet Brandon Triche. Together, their size at the top of the 2-3 is an absolute nightmare for opposing coaches and players.

Of course, none of these players got to the Final Four by sheer individual skill. Louisville might not get here without Gorgui Dieng. Michigan certainly doesn't without McGary. Syracuse's back line is nearly as imposing as its front, with C.J. Fair really blossoming into a dangerous all-around player. Wichita State's best players -- the aforementioned Early and Carl Hall -- are both 6-8.

But as we saw in Michigan's win against Kansas, it really does help to have a guard who (a) knows what he's doing, and (b) knows he knows what he's doing. Having Burke on their team is an incredible advantage for the Wolverines in a big game, because he can handle it all the time, facilitate offense, get scoring when he needs to. Smith and Siva have some of that too, but they're great for entirely different reasons -- their unique ability to speed the whole thing up, rather than slow it down or make it more manageable. Certainly, none of the four teams at the Final Four would be here without good guard play, which is also obvious. But the extent to which each team relies on that position is a clear theme -- and, if we're willing to admit it, some proof of a hoary old cliche.

INDIANAPOLIS -- A quick look at Louisville’s 85-63 win over Duke in the Midwest Regional final.

Overview: The word adversity gets tossed around so much that it’s almost lost its meaning. A foul is adversity, a bad call.

Louisville had the real thing. The top seed in the NCAA tournament, squaring off against what many consider to be the other best team in this tournament, had to overcome one of the most gut-wrenching moments in sports to return to the Final Four.

A high-energy, high-intensity game was knocked off its rails with 6:33 left in the first half when Cards backup guard Kevin Ware broke his lower right leg.

Ware, who was racing to try to block a Tyler Thornton 3-pointer, landed wrong and crumbled to the ground in front of his own bench. His teammates were overcome with emotion. Russ Smith was visibly crying, while Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan both fell to the floor, sobbing on their hands and knees.

The players eventually huddled near the free throw line but were summoned to the bench by coach Rick Pitino, who yelled, "Hey, [Kevin] wants to talk to you." The players raced over and gathered over the stretcher. Ware eventually was taken off the court on the stretcher while everybody in the building stood and applauded.

Just as play was about to resume, official Scott Thornley turned to hand the ball to Smith to inbound it and asked, "Are you OK? Ready to go?"

The Cardinals were. Showing a mental toughness that has defined this team, Louisville rolled on a 17-2 run early in the second half to break open the tight game and earn its way back to the Final Four.

Turning point: With the game tied at 42, the Cardinals put together what has become their trademark run -- a commanding 17-2 steamrolling that caught the Blue Devils flat footed. Peyton Siva scored six of those 17, Gorgui Dieng eight.

Key player: Siva. Smith had more points but Siva won this game for the Cardinals. His grit and determination steered Louisville through the emotional roller coaster of Ware’s injury. He scored 16 points, dished out four assists and played his typical swarming defense. He helped hold Seth Curry to just 12 points.

Key stat: 40-28. That’s the points in the paint edge for the Cardinals, who managed just one 3-pointer but still managed to thump Duke. The Blue Devils had to keep the Louisville guards out of the paint and simply could not.

Next: It’s back to the Final Four for the Cardinals, but this time Louisville goes to Atlanta as the favorite, not the underdog. They’ll face the underdog Wichita State in the national semifinals on Saturday.

Revisiting first Duke-Louisville meeting

March, 31, 2013
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A few stats to remember from Duke’s 76-71 victory over Louisville when the two met Nov. 24 in the final of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.

A fast but inefficient game

Louisville scored 71 points on 73 possessions, its fifth-lowest offensive efficiency in a game this season.

Three of the Cardinals’ five losses this season have come in games with at least 73 possessions. Duke won that day despite an offensive efficiency of 104.1 points per 100 possessions, its fourth-lowest in a win this season.

Duke won the transition battle

Duke outscored Louisville 14-6 in transition, with eight of its 14 transition points coming in the second half.

The Cardinals’ six transition points were their fewest this season.

In the 2013 NCAA tournament, Louisville is outscoring teams by 8.0 transition points per game. Duke has scored only one more transition point than its opponents in the tournament.

Louisville could not get Duke to make enough mistakes

Louisville forced a turnover on 19 percent of Duke’s possessions Nov. 24, its fourth-lowest percentage in a game this season.

The Cardinals were unable to capitalize on 14 Duke turnovers, scoring 14 points off them, tied for their second-fewest this season (they also scored 14 off Oregon turnovers on Friday in the Sweet 16).

Louisville is 2-2 this season when it forces a turnover on fewer than 20 percent of its opponent's possessions.

Louisville did own the paint ...

The Cardinals scored 46 of their 71 points in the paint (64.8 percent), their highest percentage of the season. The 46 points -- which came without Gorgui Dieng in the lineup -- was Louisville's second-highest paint-points total of the season.

Duke was outscored by 20 paint points, tied for its worst paint differential this season (the Blue Devils were also outscored by 20 on Feb. 7 versus North Carolina State).

... but Plumlee made the most of Dieng’s absence

Mason Plumlee scored a team-high 16 points, with all six of his made field goals coming in the paint.

Plumlee was able to get to the rim without Dieng in the lineup, as all of his made shots were either layups or dunks.

Things to know from Friday's games

March, 30, 2013
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Louisville dominates from in-close again

Louisville dominated in transition and in the paint to earn Rick Pitino his first NCAA tournament coaching matchup with Mike Krzykewski and Duke since Christian Laettner’s shot beat his Kentucky team in the 1992 Elite Eight.

Russ Smith’s 81 points (including a career-high 31 Friday versus Oregon) through his first three games of the tournament are the most by a Louisville player in the first three games of this tournament in school history.

Smith scored 14 of Louisville's 18 transition points Friday, 12 of which came in the first half. Smith has now scored 31 of Louisville's 58 transition points (53 percent) in the 2013 NCAA tournament.

Entering the tournament, Smith had scored 36 percent of Louisville's transition points this season.

Smith is averaging 10.3 transition points per game in the tournament. Entering Friday's games, no player in the field was averaging more than 9.0 transition points per game in the tournament.

Louisville scored 42 points in the paint Friday and is averaging 42.7 paint points in the tournament.

The Cardinals are the first team in the past four tournaments to score at least 40 points in the paint in three consecutive games.

Louisville won despite coming up five deflections short of its goal of 35 (we counted!).

Gorgui Dieng had 10 of the Cardinals' 30 deflections against Oregon, nearly matching his total of 13 from the first two games.

The victory made No. 1 seeds 19-0 all-time against No. 12 seeds. It also improved Pitino's record to 11-0 as a head coach in Sweet 16 games, though Oregon’s late push made this his first single-digit such win.

Burke, McGary key epic late comeback

Michigan will make its first Elite Eight appearance since 1994 after stunning Kansas with an amazing rally and overtime win.

The Wolverines outscored the Jayhawks 25-13 in the final 2:22 of regulation and overtime.

Trey Burke scored all 23 of his points in the second half and overtime. He’s the first player to have 20 points and 10 assists in a Sweet 16 game since current Florida coach Billy Donovan did so for Providence in 1987.

Burke’s 10 assists led to 22 Michigan points. Burke was responsible for 45 of Michigan's 87 points in the Wolverines' victory over Kansas, including 33 of 53 points after halftime. It was the most points responsible for by a single player in a game in this year's tournament.

Michigan is 7-0 this season when Burke scores or assists on at least 45 points.

Mitch McGary had 25 points and 14 rebounds, the first Michigan player with that many points and that many rebounds in an NCAA tournament game since Juwan Howard in 1994.

McGary and Blake Griffin (2009) are the only players in the last 15 seasons with consecutive games of 21-plus points and 14-plus rebounds in the NCAA tournament.

McGary is just the sixth player since seeding began in 1979 to have two such games in a single tournament.

Kansas has now failed to reach the Final Four in each of the past three times it has been a No. 1 seed (2010, 2011, 2013).

Kansas scored a season-high 60 points in the paint in its loss to Michigan. It was the most paint points in a loss in the past four tournaments. The Jayhawks made 30-of-43 field-goal attempts in the paint, but were 6-for-23 outside the paint, including 2-for-9 in the final 15 minutes of the game.

Michigan now has six overtime victories in the NCAA tournament, tied with Louisville for the second-most all-time. North Carolina has the most with seven.

Curry hot, takes down Michigan State

Seth Curry’s 29 points, the most by a Duke player in a Sweet 16 game since Jay Williams scored 34 against UCLA in 2001, made the difference in Duke’s win over Michigan State.

Curry outscored Michigan State 22-15 outside the paint. Curry was 8-of-15 on such attempts while the Spartans were 6-of-22.

Curry's 22 points outside the paint are tied for the most by any player in this year's tournament (Troy Daniels, VCU versus Akron) and are more than either of the Spartans' first two opponents in the tournament.

Michigan State fell to 1-7 against Duke under Tom Izzo. The Spartans were 7-for-23 from the field in the second half with seven turnovers. How bad did it get? From the 18:11 to 2:33 mark in the second half, there were four television timeouts and only one Michigan State basket.

FGCU can't handle Florida's offensive-board dominance

For the first 15 minutes of its matchup with Florida, Florida Gulf Coast looked like the giant-killer that won the first two rounds.

But the Gators put the clamps on in the final 25 minutes.

Florida has won six consecutive Sweet 16 games. A 15-6 edge on the offensive glass and 16-8 advantage in second-chance points were key.

Florida Gulf Coast scored only 14 transition points, including six in the second half.

In their first two tournament games, the Eagles averaged 23.5 transition points per game, including 17.0 in the second half. They got 12 free-throw attempts as a result of transition in their first two tournament games, but none in Friday’s loss.

The Eagles finished with 50 points, tying their season low. They averaged 79.5 points in the first two games of the tournament.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The best way to explain how good the Louisville pressure is right now? The Cardinals can’t even break it in their own practices.

"We have a tough time when we go up against it," Gorgui Dieng said. "And we know what’s coming."

Rick Pitino has made pesky defense his calling card since the day he broke into coaching, and while the coach has had better, more talented teams, it’s hard to imagine one clicking the way the Cards are as they head into the Sweet 16 game against Oregon on Friday (7:15 p.m. ET).

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith and Rick Pitino
Debby Wong/USA TODAY SportsLouisville guard Russ Smith says coach Rick Pitino has instilled in the team a sense of renewed purpose since the Cardinals last lost on Feb. 9.
Since a five-overtime loss to Notre Dame, UL is beating teams by an average of 21 points per game. No one has gotten closer than 12 points. And that’s including the Big East tournament and two games in the NCAA tournament.

In a season that has had a distinct aversion to dominance, Louisville is about the closest thing right now. One No. 1 seed is gone; one struggled in two games; one struggled in its Round of 32 game.

Louisville hasn’t broken a sweat.

"I think it’s a fair statement [to say we’re playing our best right now]," Russ Smith said. "Coach has really gotten us focused after that loss."

Not that the Cards’ coach will say so. To hear Pitino tell it, Louisville is a good team about to go up against the Dream Team. Pitino continued his parade of praise directed at the Ducks on Thursday, insisting that this will be a "very close game."

It may well be and he may well mean it, but veteran Pitino watchers will tell you that his poor-mouthing of his own team and praise of an opponent often results in a proportionally opposite winning margin.

Which means Oregon could be in for it. And coach Dana Altman knows it.

"We had two games in the NCAA tournament where we turned it over 18 times each night," Altman said. "We’ve got to figure out what the number is that we can live with. I’m hoping 15, 16 is a number we can hold it to."

If that sounds fatalistic, well, it’s probably more realistic. Louisville’s defense is not something you beat so much as you hope to survive.

That goes for Cardinals players, too. The end product now is a thing of disruptive beauty, but the process -- how the sausage is made, so to speak -- isn’t always so lovely.

Rare is the player who comes out of high school committed to playing good defense; nonexistent is the recent grad prepared for Pitino.

"Coach Pitino has never had a perfect player," Luke Hancock said. "So it’s an ongoing process. I think even some four-year guys make mistakes."

Fewer and fewer, it would seem lately.

Louisville has forced 47 turnovers in its first two tourney games -- swiping a tourney-record 20 steals against North Carolina A&T alone.

"I think they’ll have a harder time guarding our half-court stuff," Oregon forward Arsalan Kazemi said. "It’s just a matter of getting the ball across the court."

Which sounds easier than it is.

Ask Gorgui Dieng.

WHO TO WATCH

Louisville’s Chane Behanan (with help from Dieng): One of Oregon’s biggest strengths is on the boards, where the Ducks rank 20th in the nation in rebounding margin. Much of that comes on the back of Kazemi, who averages 9.6 rebounds per game. Behanan and Dieng have to negate that advantage, especially limiting UO’s offensive rebounding.

Oregon’s Dominic Artis: The freshman’s return has made all the difference for the Ducks, who are 21-4 with him in the lineup. He’s been sensational all season, but he has never faced pressure like he’ll see from the Cardinals, never faced anyone quite so quick as Russ Smith. How he handles the frenzy Louisville promises to deliver will determine how well Oregon does.

WHAT TO WATCH

Deflections and turnovers. This isn’t complicated. Louisville has made its living this season off other people’s mistakes, disrupting teams by getting its hands on the ball to either take opponents out of rhythm or swipe the ball altogether. The Cardinals rank second in the nation in steals and forced Colorado State --- a team that doesn’t even cough it up much -- into 19 turnovers. Taking care of the basketball has not been Oregon’s strength -- the Ducks average 15 giveaways a game. If that number doesn’t come down, it could be a long night for Nike U.

STAT TO WATCH

At the risk of beating a dead horse, you’ve got to watch the turnovers for Oregon. Too many is too much trouble for the Ducks. On the flip side, here’s one to watch for the Cardinals -- fouls. Louisville has played very aggressively but very intelligently so far in this tournament. That has to continue.

 
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Something happened in that halftime locker room last Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

Sure, there were words of encouragement from Louisville coach Rick Pitino as well as demands to play the way Louisville was capable of for the next 20 minutes. Senior Peyton Siva made his plea as well.

But these were words. The Cardinals' play over the five halves of basketball since was the action.

And that’s scary for anyone left in this field.

Sure, Louisville can be beaten. The Cardinals lost three consecutive games during Big East play, to Syracuse and at Villanova and Georgetown. They handed Notre Dame multiple lives during a classic five-overtime loss in South Bend, Ind.

But it would take a shutdown by the top-seeded Cardinals, and a patient team that consistently -- and I want to underscore the word consistently here -- makes shots.

Colorado State tried for five minutes. But that was it, as the Rams were swallowed whole by the Cardinals’ pressure and the nearly 90 percent home-court advantage Louisville (31-5) had on Kentucky’s home floor at Rupp Arena.

“I don’t want to put the pressure on Rick and his guys, but they’re special,” Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy said after the 82-56 thrashing in the round of 32. “They need a little luck like everybody does to win it all, but that’s as impressive a team as I’ve been against, certainly.

“I can’t say enough about coach Pitino and how he gets his guys to play for 40 minutes,” Eustachy added. “It’s as impressive as I’ve ever seen.”

The mature, experienced Rams (26-9) were out of sync, committing a season-high 20 turnovers. Once the pressure increased, the eighth seed was in a vise with no release button.

“I would just describe it as chaos,” said Colorado State’s Greg Smith, who had four turnovers. “Some of those guys are just so fast, and you may think that you have an open lane or you may think the pass is coming, and they close it down so quick. They really have each other’s backs as far as their traps and different stuff they throw at different people.”

Louisville turned a double-digit halftime deficit to Syracuse into a 17-point win. The Cards crushed North Carolina A&T by 31.

Louisville’s Chane Behanan said the halftime locker room last Saturday was one of shock.

“You could see the frustration on coach’s face,” said Behanan. “We all work so hard for him. We knew we had to buckle down. I want to see him in the Hall of Fame (Pitino is on the ballot).”

Siva said the Cardinals try not to remember the first half against Syracuse. But they must. That’s exactly how Louisville can be beaten. If the opponent has a hot hand -- like Syracuse’s James Southerland -- and the Cards are passive, they are ripe to be taken down.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY SportsRuss Smith scored 27 for the Cardinals, who are as dialed in on coach Rick Pitino as he is on them.
And in this field -- where Harvard beats New Mexico and Florida Gulf Coast knocks off Georgetown -- there are no givens.

How do you beat Louisville?

“I can’t tell you that secret,” said Siva. “Then other people will use it.”

But there is one.

“If we don’t come out with effort, we’ll beat ourselves,” said Siva. “We played 35 minutes against Notre Dame and we got beat in overtime. We’re not overconfident. How can we be when we lost three straight? Who are we to be overconfident about anything? We lost a close game to Syracuse when I turned the ball over, and lost a close game against Georgetown when I didn’t have a good game -- and then at Villanova we didn’t make free throws. We’ve got to take care of the ball and make better decisions and make free throws down the stretch.”

Russ Smith was his ridiculous, or Rupp-diculous, self Saturday with 27 points. He and Pitino exchanged plenty of good moments during the game.

They were loving his effort and productivity at both ends of the court.

The one thing you can tell from watching Pitino the past two weeks, in New York and here in Lexington, is how much he absolutely loves coaching this team.

This is not some foreign concept. John Calipari loved dealing with last season’s champion Wildcats at Kentucky. The same is almost always true of title teams and their relationships with their head coaches.

But Pitino is dialed in with this group. The players have bought in completely on how he wants them to play. The practices are intense and don’t have much of a break. The individual workouts have gone from 42 minutes at the beginning of the season to 28 now, according to Pitino. The practices range from 2 hours, 25 minutes to 1:45, with the only break for 20 seconds per correction.

“It’s counter-productive for a well-conditioned team to wear their legs out,” said Pitino.

Pitino said to play the way the Cardinals are handling games right now takes incredible stamina and shape.

He’s not about to anoint this his best team (I’d say the 1996 Kentucky team would take that honor). The talent doesn’t compare.

“It may not be in my top five (on talent),” said Pitino. “But in terms of execution and intensity and will to win, it’s up there. It’s not a who’s-who in the lottery draft. We don’t play for the lottery draft. We play the game for Louisville and move on.”

Louisville has some similar traits to the Maryland teams from 2001 and ’02. They weren’t filled with expected NBA talent. Sure, Steve Blake and Chris Wilcox have lasted in the NBA, but neither one was a lock at the time. The same could be true for Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith. That Maryland team went to the Final Four one year, lost in the semifinals and returned hungry and intact to win it the following season.

Don’t be surprised if that occurs with Louisville.

Coaching this lot has invigorated Pitino like he never thought possible.

“If I can keep recruiting guys like this, I want to coach until 70 and beyond because I’ve had such a blast, and to see guys work that hard inside just fills you up, it really does,” said Pitino. “That’s not easy to do what they do. I don’t think in my best day as an athlete I could have done half of what these guys do in the course of a game. So, it’s really amazing what they do on the court.”

NEW YORK -- A quick look at the Louisville Cardinals' 69-57 victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to advance to the Big East tournament finals.

What it means: Louisville is one victory away from winning the Big East tournament for the second year in a row. Notre Dame was eliminated in the semifinals for the fourth consecutive year.

The No. 4-ranked Cardinals (28-5) have now won nine straight games since losing to the Fighting Irish in that five-overtime classic back on Feb. 9. If Louisville wins Saturday, it almost certainly will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Notre Dame (25-9), ranked No. 24, heads home disappointed, but helped its cause by upsetting No. 12 Marquette in the quarterfinals Thursday. The Fighting Irish were projected to receive a No. 6 seed in the Big Dance in the latest edition of ESPN.com's Bracketology.

This was also Notre Dame's final game as a member of the Big East. The Fighting Irish will play in the ACC next season. Louisville will join them the following season.

The turning point: Peyton Siva nailed a 3-pointer on the very first possession of the game, Louisville went ahead by as many as seven, and led almost the entire first half. Notre Dame briefly tied the game at 22, on a Garrick Sherman bucket with 6:03 remaining. But the Cardinals outscored the Fighting Irish 10-3 the rest of the way. Luke Hancock drilled a trey from the corner before the buzzer, giving Louisville a 32-25 halftime lead.

Notre Dame drew within three points on three separate occasions early in the second half. And trailing 45-41 with 6:58 remaining, Eric Atkins missed the front end of a 1-and-1, with a chance to cut the lead to two. The Fighting Irish drew no closer. The dagger was another Hancock 3-pointer with 4:09 left, pushing the lead to double digits for the first time, 55-44. Louisville put the game away from there.

Star watch: Russ Smith, who had 28 points in Louisville's quarterfinal win over Villanova, scored 20 more on Friday to lead the Cardinals. Siva added 12, and he also had 6 assists and 7 steals. Gorgui Dieng had 8 points, 12 rebound and 4 blocked shots.

Jack Cooley and Jerian Grant scored 14 points apiece for Notre Dame.

Number crunch: Notre Dame committed 16 turnovers -- nine fewer than Villanova committed against Louisville on Thursday. But the Fighting Irish shot just 36.5 percent from the field (19-for-52), while Louisville shot 45.5 percent (25-for-55). It's the sixth consecutive contest the Cardinals have held their opponent under 40 percent. Louisville, arguably the best defensive team in the country, is on top of its game.

What's next: The Cardinals, the No. 2 seed in this tournament, will play No. 5 seed Syracuse in the title game. Tip-off is at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday.

The Fighting Irish head back to South Bend and start preparing for the Big Dance.
One man’s observations from another eventful Saturday afternoon of college basketball …

1. I don’t trust Florida anymore. Sometimes, the numbers lie. Sometimes, a team with dazzling stats fails to justify the analytic mechanisms that elevate it. That could be the case with Florida. The BPI, the RPI, Ken Pomeroy and Sagarin all love the Gators. Per the film, however, I see problems. The same Florida team that amassed a plus-18.8-points-per-game scoring margin in SEC play entering Saturday’s 61-57 loss at Kentucky (more on that soon) and crushed Marquette and Wisconsin in November has suffered four road losses in February alone. The Gators were outplayed by Arizona and Kansas State off campus in the nonconference portion of their schedule. Sure, they’ve spent of a chunk of the season punching teams in the mouth, but they’re 0-5 in games decided by six points or fewer and haven't beaten a single top-50 RPI team in a road game. And we really haven’t seen that dominant version of Florida, which began SEC play with historic margins of victory, in a month. Who are the Gators now? Well, the final minutes of the Kentucky loss told their story. They’re balanced and talented, but they fumbled in the last stretch of that loss because they couldn’t find that catalyst, that Ben McLemore/Marcus Smart/Doug McDermott/Trey Burke, to lead them beyond the funk that ruined the moment. They did not score in the last seven-plus minutes of the second half. They were the veterans, but they played like freshmen. It’s tough to believe in this program’s postseason potential when it continues to suffer road losses against hungry SEC opponents that don’t match them on paper. Guess what they’ll have to do to advance in the NCAA tournament? Beat hungry underdogs outside Gainesville. Yes, Kentucky re-entered the bubble convo with this win, but Florida did little to prove that it’s worthy of its statistical hype. Again.

2. Marcus Smart and the national/Big 12 POY conversation. Listen, I think Trey Burke deserves national player of the year, but I might change my mind if Victor Oladipo outplays him tomorrow. Here’s the general Burke argument -- and it’s a convincing one -- that circulates within college basketball media circles: “If you take him off that team, there’s no way they’re top 10 and competing for a Big Ten title.” And that’s accurate. I can’t argue against that. Here’s another one to consider: “If you take Marcus Smart off Oklahoma State’s roster, you probably have the team that finished 7-11 in league play last season and not the 13-5 team that’s competed for the Big 12 title in 2012-13.” Smart is the Big 12 player of the year. I like McLemore, Jeff Withey and Rodney McGruder, but Smart deserves the honor following his performance (21 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals) in Saturday’s 76-70 win over Kansas State, a victory that jeopardized the Wildcats’ hopes of winning a Big 12 title. He should be a legit candidate for national POY, too.

3. The sad conclusion to Georgetown-Syracuse. Following his team’s 61-39 loss at Georgetown on Saturday, Jim Boeheim told reporters, “I’m pretty much ready to go play golf someplace. If I was 40 years old, I would be real upset. I’m not 40 years old. That should be obvious.” That comment and his team’s lackluster finish to the regular season (1-4 in its last five) will continue to fuel the retirement speculation that’s surrounded Boeheim for years. John Thompson III might have won national coach of the year honors with his team’s Big East title-sealing win. But the lopsided effort -- the Hoyas’ largest margin of victory against Syracuse since 1985 -- offered a melancholy ending to this classic rivalry. Georgetown will join the Catholic 7, and Syracuse will move to the ACC next season. The two may reconnect in the future, but their battles won’t be regulated by league affiliation. So this could be the end, and as a college basketball fan, I wanted to see drama, overtime, controversy in the final seconds, a buzzer-beater, a comeback … something. This rivalry deserved that. Instead, we were treated to the sight of one impressive squad smashing an opponent that failed to show up for the conclusion of this storied series.

4. Marquette wins its most crucial bizarre game of the year. The Golden Eagles love the theatrics that tend to define college basketball in March. Their 69-67 win at St. John’s was their fourth overtime game of the season in Big East competition. It was their third conference win by three points or less. Marquette hasn’t forged the prettiest path to the Big East title, but it earned a share of the crown with another gritty victory Saturday. St. John’s launched an impressive comeback in the final minutes that sent the game into overtime. Buzz Williams just smiled as his team prepared for the extra period; he’d been in that position multiple times this season, so his squad didn’t panic. With the game on the line, Vander Blue drove into the lane and beat the buzzer with the layup. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is what Marquette does. A team that was picked to finish in the middle of the standings earned a share of the Big East title. Wow. The Golden Eagles are clearly tough enough to make noise in the NCAA tourney, too.

[+] EnlargeJim Crews
AP Photo/Bill BoyceJim Crews guided a hurting Saint Louis squad to a share of the Atlantic 10 regular-season title.
5. Jim Crews for national coach of the year. Last season, I covered Saint Louis’ NCAA tournament appearance in Columbus, Ohio. Once Rick Majerus left the podium for a pregame media session, it took him 30 minutes to re-join his team. Fans wanted to talk to him. Other coaches wanted to talk to him. Friends wanted to talk to him. Reporters wanted to talk to him. He was an icon for that program and the entire sport. So when he took an indefinite leave of absence from the team in the months prior to his death in December, the Billikens had lost so much more than a coach. Sure, they had promise, but Crews didn’t have an easy task on his plate. He had to gain the trust of this talented group (he was an assistant in 2011-12) as it prepared for a battle in an Atlantic 10 beefed up by the additions of Virginia Commonwealth and Butler. He didn’t have one of his key players (Kwamain Mitchell injured his foot last fall) for the first two months of the season. But Crews overcame those obstacles. On Saturday, the Billikens secured a share of the conference crown with a 78-54 victory over La Salle. They’ve won 12 of their past 13. Their balance, defense (22nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) and experience could lead to a deep run in March. Sounds like a national coach of the year effort to me.

6. Meet Derrick Marks. In the final seconds of a 69-65 win that might have pushed his Boise State squad into the field of 68, Marks made a split-second decision to contest Xavier Thames' layup with 21 seconds to go. If Thames had made that shot, the Aztecs would have cut Boise State’s lead to one point. But Marks made plays like that all afternoon. The sophomore guard is just one of the reasons that the Broncos could win a game or two in the NCAA tourney -- I’m putting them in the field, although I’m not so sure about San Diego State anymore. Leon Rice’s program is healthy now (eight guys earned minutes against the Aztecs). The Broncos possess an offense that’s ranked 24th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Pomeroy, and they’ve won five of their past six games. Watch out for the Broncos in the coming weeks. Huge victory for that team.

7. Get ready for drama in Nashville. Next week, the SEC tournament will take place in Nashville. This league is packed with bubble squads, and I think that will add to the drama in what could be the most exciting conference tournament of them all. Proof? On Saturday, Alabama beat Georgia on a half-court buzzer-beater, Tennessee overcame a late deficit to secure a key win over Missouri and Kentucky kept its NCAA tournament dreams alive with a victory over Florida. The chaos will continue in Nashville.

8. Florida Gulf Coast becomes first team to dance. The Eagles earned the field’s first automatic NCAA tournament berth with an 88-75 victory over Mercer in the Atlantic Sun tourney championship. This is an Eagles squad that finished 8-10 (tied for sixth) in the conference last season, but their first victory of the 2012-13 season came against a top-10-bound Miami team. Kudos to Andy Enfield’s program.

9. Creighton-Wichita State III. The two Missouri Valley Conference power players split their season series this season. Despite their respective struggles, they were still the league’s top two programs. Their most recent matchup, which the Bluejays won, determined the regular-season champion. Creighton’s 64-43 victory over Indiana State and Wichita State’s 66-51 win over Illinois State in Saturday’s semifinals of the MVC tournament guaranteed a third matchup between the league’s top two teams in Sunday afternoon’s final.

10. Louisville makes statement without five overtimes. So the rematch between Louisville and Notre Dame didn’t match the hoopla of the first game. We didn’t get five overtimes. We didn’t even see one. But the Cardinals continued to support the notion that they’re going to be a very dangerous program in the NCAA tournament with a 73-57 victory over Notre Dame. It was the seventh consecutive victory for a team that’s ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. As a team, the Cardinals shot 51 percent from the floor against the Fighting Irish, and Gorgui Dieng registered 20 points (8-11 FG) and 11 rebounds. The Cards are playing like a Final Four team.

Video: Louisville 73, Notre Dame 57

March, 9, 2013
3/09/13
6:59
PM ET

 
Gorgui Dieng had 20 points, 11 rebounds and 5 blocks as No. 8 Louisville beat No. 24 Notre Dame 73-57 to earn a share of the Big East regular-season title.

A quick dive into Louisville's big Saturday afternoon win at the Carrier Dome:

Overview: Here's the thing: If you sat down to watch Syracuse-Louisville expecting a free-flowing, finesse, up-tempo game of basketball, then you don't know much about either team. This was always going to be a defensive struggle. Louisville, the No. 1-ranked per-possession defense in the country facing Syracuse's classic 2-3 zone defense -- the winner was always going to be a matter of attrition.

Even by those standards, this was ugly. Some of that was by design; the Cardinals excel at making opponents uncomfortable on both ends of the floor, and the Orange zone is anathema to a Louisville team that already shoots just 32 percent from beyond the arc. But some of it was the fault, it must be said, of ugly offense and poor officiating, of a slappy and sloppy physical game and of a group of officials placed in the position of regulating all of it.

The end result was a 58-53 Cardinals win in the Carrier Dome. Whatever the aesthetics, Louisville fans won't mind: They got a bit of retribution for Syracuse's win in Louisville earlier this season and a bit of separation between the now 12-4 Cardinals and 10-6 Orange in the race for the Big East title.

Turning point: Late in the game, after a mostly frustrating 35 minutes of offense, it looked as if Louisville was finally set to pull away. Up 44-40, Russ Smith penetrated and found forward Luke Hancock open on the left wing. Hancock buried the 3, and Louisville took a seven-point lead -- a seemingly insurmountable margin in this game -- as Louisville coach Rick Pitino pumped his fist and screamed "Let's go! Let's go!" well in range of the CBS television cameras. Syracuse called timeout.

The only problem? Louisville fouled too often. The Orange came out of that timeout already in the bonus, and Smith, trying to get in to Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams, committed a foul within the first few seconds of the ball being inbounded. That resulted in a walk downcourt and two free throws for Carter-Williams. That was followed by an MCW drive for two over Gorgui Dieng -- a brilliant left-handed floating finish -- and, on the next possession, another pair of free throws. That was the downside to Louisville's physical play. All day the referees were determined to make calls (on both ends), and the Cardinals often hurt themselves with contact in the bonus. It was a leveling force.

In the end, Louisville finally broke away with another Smith-to-Hancock kickout 3 with just under a minute to play. The Cardinals got stops and turnovers on the other end, knocked down free throws and held on despite a couple of last-ditch attempts by the Orange. It was a quality win, and a big one. Just not a very fun one to watch.

Why Louisville won/Why Syracuse lost: Key plays in winning time. It's not like there was much separation here: The Cardinals shot 18-of-50, the Orange 20-of-56. Louisville made three more of its 3s, including that Hancock bucket that made it 51-48, and in the final minute, Louisville got stops and rebounds while Syracuse didn't get buckets. It was that simple.

Star of the game: Gorgui Dieng. Dieng's 11 points and 14 rebounds were crucial, and he was the first line of defense against the Orange's array of lanky combo forwards. But his passing from the high post against the zone -- a new skill in Dieng's arsenal -- was particularly impressive.

Stat of the game: Louisville shot just 14-of-24 from the free throw line and still won on the road. Some might use that as an indictment of Syracuse; I think it's a testament to Louisville's defense. Maybe it's both.

What it means for Louisville: It means a clear push away from Syracuse and into the elite area, alongside Georgetown and Marquette, where true Big East title contenders lurk. It also means an extra tick on the box for NCAA tournament seeding and revenge for the thrilling loss Syracuse dealt the Cardinals earlier this season.

What it means for Syracuse: It's just a loss, and that's probably the message Jim Boeheim will deliver to his team. But for fans, it might be something more, yet another data point that this Orange team is struggling in significant ways (particularly on the offensive end), having lost three straight.

What's next: Louisville is home against Cincinnati on Monday before its season-ending home tilt against Notre Dame; Syracuse gets a deep breath when DePaul comes to town Wednesday in advance of next Saturday's massive season- and series-ending rivalry game at Georgetown.

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