College Basketball Nation: Kyle Kuric

NEW ORLEANS – There were no tears.

The Louisville Cardinals didn’t hang towels over their heads or pause to collect themselves as they talked with reporters.

Following their 69-61 loss to archrival and national-title favorite Kentucky in the Final Four on Saturday, Louisville’s players and coaches did not sulk. They were disappointed but not devastated.

Wayne Blackshear chomped an apple and conversed with the team’s other youngsters about his classes as he sat on a stool.

Peyton Siva and Russ Smith stared at their smartphones. A few players who’d never touched the floor at Mercedes-Benz Superdome joked in a corner.

The team that had buckled the Final Four’s power grid -- Kansas, Ohio State and Kentucky were all ranked in the top 10 of both major polls at the end of the season -- offered the field a true underdog and added some intrigue to the gathering.

“Well, basically what I told the guys was that for Chris [Smith] and Kyle [Kuric], it was like preparing for the Olympics, and you just work so hard every single day, gave some extraordinary effort, then at the end you're on the podium and they're playing somebody else's national anthem, but you have a bronze medal around your neck,” said coach Rick Pitino. “When I compared them a few weeks ago to the '87 Providence team, it was in terms of effort and attitude. They made me really, really proud. They battled a great team tonight. We just needed lot of things to go right down the stretch.”

The Cardinals had no business being in New Orleans. And their postgame vibe in the Big Easy suggested that they knew as much.

Blackshear scored nine points in 14 minutes of crucial reserve duty against the Wildcats. But his October shoulder injury forced him to miss most of the season and commenced a string of personnel mishaps for the Cardinals.

Mike Marra and Rakeem Buckles suffered season-ending knee injuries. Other key players were hampered by injuries, including Siva, who dealt with an ankle injury at the start of the year.

The team used mixed martial arts helmets in recent practices to protect three players, Siva included, who’d endured multiple concussions.

“We made it to the Final Four when nobody thought we could,” said Siva, who led the Cardinals with 11 points.

That’s why Pitino smiled on the Superdome podium as he talked about this Cardinals squad, one that had clearly overachieved by even reaching New Orleans.

[+] EnlargeGorgui Dieng
Richard Mackson/US PresswireSophomore center Gorgui Dieng (10) and Louisville were proud of their surprise run to New Orleans: "Why are we gonna hang our head?"
The 4-seed cast doubt on what seemed like a formality -- Kentucky winning the national title -- with its effort.

A pregame trade with the Hornets might not have guaranteed a victory for the Cardinals. After the game, Pitino compared Anthony Davis (18 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks) to Bill Russell. John Calipari’s squad shot 57.1 percent from the field to Louisville’s 34.8.

But with Kentucky leading 46-34 with 15:37 to go and threatening to enter Blowout Mode, the Cardinals clawed back with the same fight that led the Big East’s seventh-place squad to a Big East tournament title and Final Four appearance.

A Siva 3-pointer tied the affair (49-49) and capped a 15-3 run with 9:12 to play. But Kentucky surged after that moment, which ignited the school’s fans.

Louisville matched Kentucky’s toughness (outscored by only 40-38 in the paint). But the Cardinals failed to equal the Wildcats’ execution.

They mustered just 13 second-chance points on 19 offensive rebounds. Their 5-for-15 mark on second-chance opportunities was the lowest rate in this year’s NCAA tournament, per ESPN Stats & Information. The latter also reported that Louisville missed 13 dunks and layups.

But the Cardinals didn’t talk like a team that felt like it had blown a national championship opportunity.

“I don’t think there’s any disappointment here. Like, nobody believed in us, nobody believed we could make it to the Final Four,” said Gorgui Dieng, who scored 7 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked 4 shots. “Even they couldn’t believe we could make it to the Sweet 16. We wanted to make a big run to the national championship, but it is what it is. Why are we gonna hang our head?”

A “they all doubted we could get here” mantra reverberated around the locker room. And really, there were few reasons to believe the Cardinals could crack the Final Four on Selection Sunday, even though they possessed one of the top defenses in America.

“We don’t look at ourselves as the underdog because we’re a big-time university. We just feel disrespected because we’re winning,” said Russ Smith, who scored nine points. “It’s like nobody respects us.”

Their fans do.

Louisville loyalists flooded Bourbon Street as early as Thursday. Boisterous school cheers rang out from downtown streets. The blue-collar crew had crashed the country club assembly of power players in New Orleans.

The Cardinals’ supporters wanted the city to know that they were ready for the festivities.

They didn’t need a victory to party.

Pitino said he hopes his players follow that example.

“I told the guys, ‘Look, I'm going to Miami tomorrow and I'm celebrating a season where we worked around the clock, around injuries and everything else. If you guys don't celebrate and have good, clean fun, you're fools. Because I think there's only been eight teams that got to the Final Four in the history of one of the greatest traditions and they did it,” he said. “So they're going to celebrate. Kyle will celebrate a little more low-keyed than Chris will, but they're going to celebrate.”

Video: Louisville at the Final Four

March, 30, 2012

Gorgui Dieng, Kyle Kuric and Chane Behanan on playing Kentucky in the Final Four.
NEW ORLEANS -- Kyle Kuric is no Rudy Ruettiger.

The word "walk-on" typically conjures romantic images -- the undersized, unathletic, unrecruited player who outworks his more talented peers, the guy who refuses to give up on his college dream, the unglamorous bench-dweller in it for sheer love.

[+] EnlargeKyle Kuric
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonKyle Kuric has been a key component during Louisville's run to the Final Four.
Kuric has some of those qualities, sure, but his story isn't quite that idyllic. In 2008, the Evansville, Ind., native made occasional appearances on recruiting rankings, received a scholarship offer from Butler and entered Louisville coach Rick Pitino's program as a preferred walk-on. He didn't play much as a freshman -- a disappointment to Kuric and Kuric alone -- but emerged as solid scorer as a sophomore. That breakout earned him a scholarship last season, when he became a key piece in an overachieving Cardinals lineup.

"I was called a walk-on, but it was really just a title," Kuric said. "It didn't make any difference to me."

Such was the case again in Kuric's final season, when he gave up his scholarship for the betterment of his team. Pitino needed openings to sign standout freshmen recruits Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear, among others; Kuric's father, Steve Kuric, an Evansville-based neurosurgeon, was willing to foot the bill to help build the team.

That willingness paid off. Behanan's addition was crucial for a team that battled injuries and inconsistency all season; his play in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight was a primary reason Louisville overcame Michigan State and Florida en route to the Final Four. And the walk-on, who just so happens to be a starter on a team with two McDonald's All-Americans in its lineup, is just one day away from this you-don't-need-me-to-tell-you-how-big national semifinal against Kentucky.

That Kuric, now a captain, is such an important part of this team -- that he'll be matched up across from the unmatchable trio of Kentucky off-guards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb -- is a sign of not only how ragtag this group really is, but how much Kuric has developed in his four years in school. He is -- and this is not a value judgment so much as a statement of fact -- the un-Kentucky. The contrast with the NBA-bound, freshmen-led Wildcats couldn't be more stark.

"The way our coach recruits us and develops us is the reason [for our success]," Kuric said. "Where I've come since my freshman year, and the way we all play together and rely on each other so much, it says a lot about us.

"A lot of people are saying we're playing with house money, that we're just happy to be here," Kuric said. "We're definitely happy. But we're not content."
NEW ORLEANS -- Russ Smith always wanted to play for Rick Pitino. The only problem? Pitino didn't want to coach Russ Smith.

The coach had seen plenty of the diminutive, scattershot guard as a seventh- and eighth-grader at the Louisville basketball camp, where Smith was the MVP. Pitino knew Smith's father, Russ Sr., whom Pitino jokingly described as "crazy." He couldn't imagine one day putting the offspring in a Cardinals uniform.

But on the advice of assistant coach Ralph Willard, Pitino agreed to see Smith play at Molloy High School in Queens, N.Y., and eventually Willard's relentless campaign won him over.

"I never considered recruiting him," Pitino said. "Ralph kept hitting me, saying, 'That's the kid you should go after.' I said, 'Russ Smith? I knew his dad when he was Russ' age.' I said, 'He's 5-foot-8.' Ralph said, 'No, Rick, he was 5-foot-8 in the eighth grade. He's 6-foot now.'

"So I called over Russ and said, 'Come here, Russ,' and he gave me a big hug," Pitino recalled. "And I said, 'You know, Ralph, you might be right.'"

A few years later, as Louisville made its unlikely run to the 2012 Final Four, Smith's teammates would recall another hug, one he asked of his coach after a particularly vicious mid-timeout dressing-down this season. "OK, Coach," Smith said. "Now let's hug." Smith stumped Pitino with the request, but hugged him anyway. As guard Kyle Kuric would later tell it, "that's the moment when Coach just decided to accept Russ Smith."

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino and Gorgui Dieng
Debby Wong/US Presswire"I'm having the time of my life watching them achieve this," Rick Pitino said. "Last year and this year have been like 1987 for me. Just a great time."
Smith's huggable story is a fitting model for this year's Cardinals, a thoroughly random assemblage of players who differ greatly from man to man in their origins, backgrounds, high school recruiting hype and paths to the rotation of this season's most unlikely Final Four squad. Smith is the maddeningly breakneck gunner who has emerged, for better or worse, as one of Pitino's most frustrating, yet beloved players. Center Gorgui Dieng is the African prospect who learned English in six months and morphed from a shy beanpole to a philosophical shot-blocking force. Kuric is the former walk-on who earned a scholarship, then willingly gave it up. His neurosurgeon father was willing to pay tuition to allow Pitino to make 2011's big recruiting haul. Chris Smith is the oft-overlooked little brother of New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith.

Peyton Siva is the former McDonald's All-American prospect who has battled injuries and inconsistency for all four years of his career. His sudden streak of good health just before the Big East tournament has helped spur the Cardinals to their eight-game winning streak. Only freshman forward Chane Behanan -- a McDonald's All-American in his own right -- has to this point followed what might be considered a rational career trajectory. And he's just getting started.

Viewed as disparate parts, they don't look like much. For large stretches of the 2012 season, the whole wasn't all that pretty, either. But it's clear this varied group of talents and personalities is one Pitino relishes as much as any he's ever coached.

"I'm having the time of my life watching them achieve this," Pitino said. "Last year and this year have been like 1987 for me. Just a great time. Great time."

Perhaps that's why Louisville seems so loose heading into a game that would make most shiver with nerves. A Final Four matchup with overwhelming national title favorite Kentucky? A date with the nation's best team, which just so happens to be Louisville's intensely detested bête noire? There are massive stakes on the line Saturday, no less than a chance to be remembered forever in a hoops-mad state's basketball lore. Yet the Cardinals seem downright unfazed.

"We're just enjoying the opportunity to play in this thing, realizing we're even here," Siva said. "Of course we're underdogs. We're playing the No. 1 seed. It's going to be a tough game, but it's going to be a good game."

There are few rational observers who could possibly peg Louisville to upset the star-studded, juggernaut Wildcats. A guard his coach didn't want, who still drives his coach mad? A former walk-on in the starting lineup? A developing project charged with stopping Anthony Davis? Kentucky coach John Calipari has at least six NBA talents in his rotation and three likely lottery picks -- up against this Louisville team?

No, the Cardinals aren't supposed to win Saturday. But then again, they weren't supposed to be here in the first place. As they prepare to take on the latest unlikely challenge, at the very least, Pitino's team seems intent on enjoying the ride.

"We went through the Big East, we cut down nets, we're in Portland, we're in Phoenix, we get a win, we cut down nets, and suddenly we're playing Kentucky," Pitino said. "It's like, flashback -- what happened the last two weeks? How did we get here?"

PHOENIX -- Erving Walker tossed up his futile, last-ditch 3. As it plummeted to its pointless finish, the buzzer sounded and the scoreboard was clear. Louisville 72, Florida 68.

Rub your eyes for a moment, and check again. Louisville 72, Florida 68.

Ecstatic and unmoored, Louisville's bench sprinted across the floor, players hugging and popping their shirts and pointing at their fans and reveling in another incredible chapter of their unlikely story -- an 18-3 run to close the game, a recovery from Florida's lights-out first half, an Elite Eight victory over one of the hottest and most talented teams in the tournament.

The Louisville Cardinals were going to the Final Four -- this team! in the Final Four! -- and they meant to celebrate that fact.

But one player was restrained. As his teammates bounded and embraced, UL freshman Chane Behanan sat on his team's bench, head down, frozen in place.

"I felt like I was in a dream," Behanan said. "No way. No way.

"I don't know how we win that game. How did we win that game, man?"

In truth, the Cardinals won that game with the same characteristics that got them to the Elite Eight in the first place. Some are tangible, easy to see: versatile defense, rebounding, brilliant coaching adjustments, conditioning, Behanan's revelatory emergence.

Some are intangible, more difficult to define: unwavering self-confidence, pluck, intelligence, a knack for the big moment, the occasional dash of luck. Or, as guard Peyton Siva defined it: "heart."

Whatever you want to call it, the Cardinals are swimming in it. How else do you explain it? This is the same team that was riddled with injuries all season, played oft-horrific offense and lost four of its final six regular-season games.

These are the best guesses as to why this team hasn't lost since the start of the Big East tournament. These are the reasons why its coach, Rick Pitino, will appear in his sixth Final Four, why he'll become just the third coach (alongside Roy Williams and Jack Gardner) to take two different programs to multiple Final Fours. They're why Pitino moved to 7-0 against Billy Donovan, his former player and assistant and why, after three decades in the game, Pitino reserves a special place for this team.

"I never wanted a Final Four more than for these guys," Pitino said. "They give me every single thing they have in their bodies. They're just the most incredible group to coach."

Why? Saturday was the perfect example.

Florida came out hot -- hotter than it could have ever reasonably hoped, considering it faced the nation's No. 1-ranked per-possession defense. Two days ago, the Cardinals had stymied No. 1-seeded Michigan State with punishingly quick defense, with a zone that gave the Spartans no chance of offensive rhythm.

On Saturday, the Cards unleashed their zone again, but the Gators shredded it. In the first half, UF scored 41 points -- just three fewer than Michigan State scored in 40 minutes Thursday night -- on 14-of-21 shooting from the field and 8-of-11 from 3.

Not only was Louisville's defense not holding the Gators' attack back, but Florida was comfortable -- swinging the ball from side to side, finding trailing players for open 3s, knocking down everything, seemingly burying the game.

Seven of Florida's eight first-half 3s came against the zone. On the first play after the half, UF knocked down another jumper against the zone, and Pitino refused to sit by and watch. He knew he had to switch. So the Cardinals moved to their man-to-man.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesSophomore guard Russ Smith scored 12 points during Louisville's game-ending 25-10 run.
Of course, the pupil countered: Donovan exploited the man defense by running ball screens designed to force Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng to guard the perimeter. It worked, until the master countered back: Pitino told Behanan to wait until the last second on defense and switch with Dieng, flustering the designed screens just as they began to take shape.

It was around that point -- with 10:56 remaining -- that official Karl Hess whistled Pitino for a technical foul even though he was talking to Siva. ("I'm yelling at Peyton, 'Why would you foul, he's falling down,'" Pitino said. "I'm yelling, 'Why, why? Why would you foul?' And he gave me a technical.") Walker knocked down all four free throws on that dead-ball situation, Florida stretched its lead to 11 points, Siva was in foul trouble and the Cardinals looked like toast.

"I'm not going to lie," Behanan said. "I thought that was it after that."

That's when one of the Cardinals' quieter players called an impromptu, in-game team meeting. Kyle Kuric doesn't talk much, his teammates said, but when he does, they listen. And Kuric was talking now.

"Kyle grabbed everyone together and said, 'Listen, we're going through adversity,'" guard Russ Smith -- whose nickname, "Russ-diculous," couldn't possibly be more fitting -- said. "'They're hitting ridiculous shots. Let's just get some stops, because we're facing adversity. We've been here before.' We took off."

The Cardinals embarked on a 25-10 run to close the game. Smith and Behanan combined to score 23 of those points. Forward Behanan made key buckets down the stretch -- the one to tie the game at 66, the one with 1:12 left to play, when he cleared Dieng out and drained a turnaround jumper to give his team its first lead since the 14-minute mark in the first half.

Meanwhile, thanks to Siva's fifth foul at the four-minute mark, guard Smith finished the game on the floor. In typical "Russ-diculous" fashion, he threw the ball away to Florida guard Bradley Beal with 25 seconds remaining ... but lucked out when Beal traveled in the ensuing fracas.

"I could have cost us the season," Smith said. "I was very nervous. Thank God we won the game."

As for that defense, by the final whistle, the Cardinals had played 48 possessions in man-to-man. Florida shot just 11-of-29 against that pressure. In the second half, the Gators went 0-for-8 from long range and 9-of-25 overall. Pitino's adjustment, combined with Smith and Behanan's punctual baskets, changed the game.

So it was that, slowly but surely -- the product of conditioning and defensive adjustment and an uncanny knack for the timely play, more than any obviously overwhelming run -- Louisville won the game. It overcame a white-hot Florida first half, five fouls for its starting senior point guard, a second-half Pitino technical, and an 11-point deficit to get to the Final Four.

All season, it has overcome injuries and a putrid offense ("The other day we had an open practice, and I said to my son, 'We're about 2-of-50' -- and Gorgui made one of the two shots," Pitino cracked). Now, at the most important moments, it is overcoming teams with more talent, teams with more future draft picks, teams with more size, teams with more speed, lineups like Michigan State's and lineups like Florida's.

This Louisville team overcomes.

At the end, it all culminated with Walker's pointless heave, with a team hugging and screaming at midcourt, preparing to cut down the nylon net, with the freshman forward who had just carried them there sitting on the sideline, motionless, trying to take it all in.

"Somebody wake me up," Behanan said, before trailing off and laughing. "I still don't know how we won that game. I'm glad we did -- but it was crazy how we won."

Crazy? Sure. But par for the course for this Louisville team, which makes "find a way to win" less a cliché than a credo. It isn't pretty. It doesn't always make sense. But if Behanan was dreaming, he should roll over and hit snooze.

Somehow, his team is going to the Final Four.

It's not time to wake up just yet.

Video: Louisville's Rick Pitino

March, 24, 2012

Louisville coach Rick Pitino discusses the leadership of senior Kyle Kuric and the Cardinals' defensive adjustments during their 72-68 win over Florida on Saturday.

NEW YORK – Rick Pitino grew up on the East Side -- 26th Street, to be exact -- and like all boys who grew up with basketball visions dancing in their heads, Madison Square Garden was the Holy Land, the hallowed hardwoods for the gods.

He watched games there as a boy, even signed his scholarship papers to the University of Massachusetts on the Garden court.

When he coached there for the first time, as head coach at Providence, Pitino cried, overcome with emotion at what he had achieved.

And when he became the court’s primary caretaker as the head coach of the New York Knicks, those were pinch-yourself days.

Pitino is 59 now. He’s logged more of his professional career in the Commonwealth of Kentucky than the streets of Manhattan, but in his gut he remains the little kid who stared adoringly at the Garden.

This place still means something to him, and in an age of fraying conference loyalties and the death of collegiality, somehow it seemed fitting that at the last Big East tournament as we know it, the Garden King stood victorious.

Pitino and Louisville, a team even the hometown crowd had written off after a 33-point loss to Providence in January, topped Cincinnati 50-44 to win the Big East tournament title.

“I’ve had a lot of good memories in this place,’’ Pitino said amid the celebration on the court, “and this is one of them.’’

In recent years, plenty of people have argued the merits of conference tournaments. Outside of the one-bid-league fray, some say they are little more than annoying stopgaps to survive en route to the NCAA tournament.

After Syracuse was ousted by Cincinnati in the semifinals, the Orange said as much.

“As much as we want to win this tournament, the only one that matters is the one that starts next week,’’ coach Jim Boeheim said.

“Everyone says that,’’ Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin countered, “after they lose.’’

No one will question whether it matters to Pitino. Through a tumultuous year in the Big East, Pitino has emerged as the league’s primary politician and loudest cheerleader. He stumped for Memphis and Temple, practically begging his longtime friend and league commissioner John Marinatto to extend an invitation to the basketball-friendly schools.

And when Marinatto did, no one crowed more about what a fantastic job Marinatto had done, insisting that though the Big East will be different it will remain every bit as good, than Pitino.

Cynics might say he’s merely protecting his own brand. Louisville is here and no one left in the Big East wants anyone to think the conference is anything less than the power it always has been.

But to Pitino, it’s more than that. He holds the conference close to his heart, and while he accepts the changes he remains a traditionalist at heart, one who deeply believes in honoring the vision of league founder Dave Gavitt.

So to take home the crown, his second since Louisville joined in 2005, and the last in the league’s most powerful alignment, matters.

“This is the last time the Big East will be together like it was,’’ Cardinals guard Chris Smith said. “To win it, it means a lot to us. I know it means a lot to Coach P.’’

Pitino won the 10th conference title in his career (five SEC, two Big East, two Conference USA, and one North Atlantic) in vintage fashion, rebuilding another Humpty Dumpty of a team.

Along with massaging Gorgui Dieng into productivity, educating the enigmatic Russ Smith on the fine line of shot selection and riding the roller-coaster tendencies of point guard Peyton Siva, only three players have participated in all of the Cardinals’ games this year. The rest have helped construct an injury report that would make an NFL team blush:

[+] EnlargePitino
Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comWinning another Big East title at Madison Square Garden after a tough season for Louisville was all the sweeter for New Yorker Rick Pitino.
Mike Marra, torn ACL, out all year; Rakeem Buckles, torn ACL, out since January; Stephan Van Treese, patellar injury, out all year; Wayne Blackshear, shoulder surgery, out 25 games; Siva, sprained ankle and concussion, missed three games; Kyle Kuric, sprained ankle, missed three games; Jared Swopshire, recovering from groin injury, missed two games.

It forced Pitino completely out of his comfort zone. He had to put the brakes on the fast-tempo style he’s always loved and felt this team was best suited for, and turned the Cardinals into a wildly unpredictable outfit.

“It was really hard,’’ Pitino's son and assistant coach Richard said. “In a lot of ways, this team overachieved, but then again he’s done that his whole career.’’

There is no secret to Pitino’s methods other than consistency.

Cronin spent two seasons working under Pitino at Louisville, taking a lifetime of learning in that short span.

“The most important thing he taught me is that you have to coach like you coach,’’ Cronin said. “You can't let outside people define who you are. You can’t let the kids splinter. You have to make sure they keep in mind who they are as people and who they are as a team.’’

It was a valuable lesson for Cronin this year as he shepherded Cincinnati from the black eye of the December brawl with Xavier to the brink of its first Big East crown -- and an equally crucial tool for the Cardinals.

The ante has been upped in Kentucky these days. Down the road in Lexington, John Calipari is busy collecting talent like a hoarder. His Wildcats will be announced as the overall No. 1 seed on Sunday evening and will head into the NCAA tournament as the favorite to win the title.

Louisville, in the meantime, has swung and missed on some recruits and entered the season on the heels of an NCAA tournament upset at the hands of Morehead State in the same year that Kentucky went to the Final Four.

“I know a lot of people back home doubted us,’’ Chris Smith said. “That’s OK. They’ll love us now.’’

Louisville did not win style points in this victory against Cincinnati. It was hard to watch, a slugfest where points were at a premium and the scoreboard had trouble nudging itself forward.

The Cards won because of their defense. Pitino challenged them to guard the arc like soldiers against the league’s leader in 3-pointers made per game -- “I told them I don’t care if they go by you; you have to guard them from the NBA line,’’ Pitino said.

It made all the difference. The same Cincinnati team that had 10 3-pointers by the half against Syracuse’s zone finished the game 3-of-14 against the Cardinals.

When the buzzer sounded, the players erupted, a mosh pit of infra-red jerseys celebrating in front of the court. Pitino, all business, walked to shake Cronin’s hand before finally breaking in to a wide grin as he hugged his assistants, wife and son, celebrating once more time on his own personal home court.

When he was walking in to work on Saturday night, a construction worker spied Pitino and yelled out, “Hey coach, you shoulda never left the Knicks!’’

“I looked up. He couldn’t have been more than 26 or 27,’’ Pitino said. “I yelled back, ‘You were in diapers.’’’

Perhaps, but New Yorkers never forget. Not when it comes to the Garden.

Some quick thoughts from Louisville's 50-44 victory over Cincinnati in the Big East tournament final:

Overview: Louisville is your Big East tournament champion, for the second time in four years.

CincinnatiLouisvilleThe No. 7-seeded Cardinals, who won the title in 2009 and lost in the championship game to UConn last year, defeated No. 4 seed Cincinnati on Saturday night -- the Cardinals' fourth win in four days here in New York.

Cincinnati (24-10), playing in its first-ever Big East championship game, falls short, but should still feel very confident heading into next week's NCAA tournament after defeating Georgetown and Syracuse the past two days here.

Louisville (26-9), after a lackluster finish to the regular season, with three losses in its final four games, now enters the Big Dance with a world of momentum.

Turning point: The first half of this game wasn't pretty, to say the least. Louisville led 24-14 at intermission. Against Syracuse on Friday night, Cincinnati shot 8-for-13 from 3-point range in the first half. Tonight? The Bearcats were 0-for-9.

Cincinnati had a chance to cut the deficit to four with 12:12 left in the game, but Dion Dixon missed a pair of free throws. Louisville swiped the momentum right back when Kyle Kuric was fouled by Sean Kilpatrick on a 3-point attempt -- Kuric made all three free throws to make it 37-28. That was the beginning of a 10-0 run to give the Cardinals their largest lead, 44-28 with 8:28 remaining.

Just when the Bearcats looked all but dead, they rallied down the home stretch. Cincinnati cut it to 48-44, and Jaquon Parker had two free throws with 28.7 seconds left to make it 48-46 -- but he missed both. Louisville closed it out from there.

Key player: Chris Smith had a game-high 15 points for Louisville, and Kuric added 13. But Peyton Siva was Louisville's most valuable player this week, and that continued on Saturday. Siva's numbers were a little more modest against Cincinnati -- 10 points, five assists, four rebounds -- but he was the co-pilot of this championship ship, along with coach Rick Pitino.

Cashmere Wright led the Bearcats with 16 points.

Key stat: Cincinnati has been a poor free throw-shooting team this season, and it was costly in a big way tonight. The Bearcats made just 1 of 7 attempts, including those misses at crucial times mentioned above.

Miscellaneous: This is the first time in Big East tournament history that the championship game did not feature at least one founding member. The times, they are a-changin'. ... This was the fourth time in the past seven years that a team seeded No. 7 or lower has won the event.

What's next: Selection Sunday -- both these teams will hear their names called tomorrow.

Thursday Recap: Freshman leads Aggies

February, 24, 2012
Player of the Night: Daniel Mullings
The freshman guard recorded New Mexico State’s first triple-double in 20 years, as the Aggies walked all over Hawaii, 115-73. Mullings finished with 28 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, all career-highs. He’d never even had a double-double before. William Benjamin recorded the Aggies last triple-double in 1992. Mullings is the first freshman with a triple-double since Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser last season.

Stat Sheet Stuffer: Ken Horton
Horton did a little bit of everything in Central Connecticut’s 78-63 win over Mount St. Mary’s. The Blue Devils' senior scored a career-high 39 points to go with 13 rebounds and five assists. Horton joins Villanova’s Maalik Wayns as the only players to reach all three of those totals in a game this season. Horton also added five steals. No one has reached those four totals in a game in, at least, the past 15 seasons. Horton stands just 81 points shy of 2,000 for his career. While one Blue Devil was scoring a career high, another Blue Devil was having a huge game off the bench for Duke.

Bench Star: Andre Dawkins
The junior scored 22 points in 21 minutes off the bench to lead Duke over Florida State, 74-66. Dawkins did most of his damage in the first half, scoring 18 points. Dawkins has come off the bench in half of his games this season, and actually has a higher scoring average as a reserve (10.4) than as a starter (9.4).

Scoring Star: Kevin Olekaibe
Olekaibe scored a career-high 43 points, including 25 in the second half, as Fresno State topped Seattle, 78-72. The 43 points set a school record for a regulation game, and it’s the most by a WAC player since Jaycee Carroll in 2007. Olekaibe also became the first Fresno State player to top 40 since Courtney Alexander in 2000.

Ugly Stat Line of the Night: Kyle Kuric
Louisville got next to nothing out of Kuric, and dropped a 60-56 decision at Cincinnati. Kuric went 0-for-11 from the field and missed all seven of his 3s. It’s the worst shooting performance by a Louisville player in, at least, the past 15 seasons.

Here’s a quick look at No. 18 Louisville’s 90-82 overtime win against DePaul on Saturday.

How it happened: DePaul got off to another hot start against a Big East opponent, but again it wasn’t to last. The Blue Demons jumped out to a 16-4 lead and kept their advantage in double figures most of the first half. They led 42-32 at halftime. The second half was a different story. Louisville opened the half on an 18-6 run to take the lead. Louisville sank eight 3-pointers to key its second-half comeback. The teams would go and back forth from there on out. Louisville led 76-72 down the stretch, but DePaul answered again and sent the game into overtime. Louisville’s Russ Smith was the difference in overtime, scoring two big consecutive shots that gave the Cardinals an 83-79 lead. They outscored DePaul 13-5 in the extra period.

What it means: It was another heartbreaking loss for DePaul. The Blue Demons have definitely improved in coach Oliver Purnell’s second season, but their progress still isn’t leading to wins. The Blue Demons fell to 2-12 in the Big East and have dropped their past six games. Louisville improved to 9-5 in conference.

Outside the box: If games lasted only one half, DePaul would be one of the premier teams in the Big East. Saturday marked the fifth time in six games the Blue Demons led or were tied at halftime. Their 10-point halftime lead was their biggest in Big East play.

Player of the game: Louisville’s Kyle Kuric scored a team-high 25 points and drained five 3-pointers.

DePaul player of the game: Brandon Young had struggled throughout DePaul’s past seven games. He broke out of that slump on Saturday. He was 10-of-13 from the field and scored a game-high 27 points.

What’s next: DePaul has a quick turnaround and plays at St. John's on Monday. Louisville heads to Cincinnati on Wednesday.

Conference power rankings: Big East

January, 23, 2012
The best team in the Big East lost this past weekend, but the best team is still the best team. A few other things did change in this week's power rankings, though. Let's take a look:

1. Syracuse: The Orange finally fell and looked as lousy in defeat as they looked great in 20 victories. But one bad loss on the road without starting center Fab Melo does not a bad team make. Syracuse is still easily the best team in the Big East, though the road continues to be unkind with a Monday trip to Cincinnati without Melo.

2. Georgetown: The winner of the ever-revolving No. 2 slot goes to the Hoyas this week, but not necessarily in convincing fashion. Georgetown shot 3-of-24 in the first half at home against Rutgers and made only 12 field goals on the day, but did end up surviving.

3. Marquette: The Golden Eagles have yet to see the best of what the conference offers, but give Buzz Williams’ team credit: They keep winning while everyone else falters. Marquette has won four in a row.

4. West Virginia: Fortunately for the Mountaineers, these rankings aren’t based on basketball smarts, because Darryl "Truck" Bryant's foolish and unnecessary floater against Cincinnati would push WVU to the bottom of the list. As it is, the 'Eers have won three in a row.

5. Cincinnati: The Bearcats are two-thirds of the way through one of the more difficult conference runs, beating UConn in Storrs and losing to West Virginia in Morgantown in overtime. Now for the big test: Syracuse, ticked after dropping its first game of the season, on Monday.

6. Notre Dame: Perhaps the Irish should schedule more games against No. 1 teams. Notre Dame upset Syracuse for its eighth win against a top-ranked team. This after losing to Rutgers on the road.

7. Louisville: What a difference Kyle Kuric makes. Kuric played despite a balky ankle, scoring 21 in a much-needed win for the Cards at Pitt.

8. South Florida: Quietly, while no one was paying attention, the Bulls are building up their best Big East record to date at 5-2. South Florida has won three in a row and five of the past six. Where did this come from?

9. Connecticut: The Huskies’ troubles continue, with four losses in six games, including to a rebuilding Tennessee team in Knoxville. UConn has a tough upcoming slate, at home versus a confident Notre Dame team and then on the road at Georgetown.

10. Seton Hall: The Pirates’ margin for error is slim, evidenced by back-to-back losses to South Florida and Villanova. Seton Hall remains a dangerous team, capable of beating anyone but equally susceptible to bad losses.

11. Villanova: Progress comes in baby steps for a Wildcats team trying to find its way, so a home win against Seton Hall and a come-from-behind overtime victory at St. John’s counts significantly.

12. Rutgers: The young Scarlet Knights are going to be in every game. It’s just winning them that’s difficult. Rutgers gave Georgetown all it could handle but couldn’t steal a road win.

13. DePaul: The struggles continue for the Blue Demons, losers of five in a row and six of seven since league play began. This week could be a good one for DePaul, with young Rutgers and St. John’s teams on tap.

14. St. John's: The troubles also continue to mount for the Red Storm, who are mired in a four-game losing streak with little relief in sight. This week, St. John's hosts West Virginia and then travels to Duke.

15. Providence: After battling back-to-back ranked teams in Syracuse and Marquette, the Friars enter a three-game run of winnable games. Providence plays at Pitt and South Florida and then hosts Rutgers. Nothing is a gimme when you have one league victory, but at least the Friars will have a chance.

16. Pittsburgh: What else can be said about the Panthers? With "College GameDay" on campus fueling the energy in the Pete and Travon Woodall back in the lineup, Pitt still lost to Louisville. The Panthers host Providence on Wednesday in a Big East battle of the basement.

Conference power rankings: Big East

January, 16, 2012
Ranking this mega-league is not an easy task, but we'll give it another shot ...

1. Syracuse: Someone on Twitter suggested that the Orange’s second five be ranked as the second-best team in the Big East. It’s not crazy, considering the bench accounted for 41 of Syracuse’s 78 points against Providence.

2. Connecticut: Another difficult week for the Huskies. With Jim Calhoun’s suspension over, now UConn is dealing with the uncertainty of Ryan Boatright's status for the rest of the season as the NCAA looks into his eligibility again. That the Huskies were able to deal with the immediate news and win at Notre Dame is a credit to the team. The long-term effects, however, remain to be seen.

3. West Virginia: Interesting week for the Mountaineers, who appear headed in the right direction. They play against in-state rival Marshall, a dangerous game against a good team in Conference USA, and then host Cincinnati.

4. Georgetown: The Hoyas hopped off their losing streak in convincing fashion by toasting St. John’s by 20. That should -- at least temporarily -- silence critics who wondered if Georgetown was heading to another midseason slide.

5. Seton Hall: So was the loss to South Florida a hiccup or a more serious problem? That’s the question that needs to be answered for the Pirates, who had a chance to win the game, but Jordan Theodore missed the front end of a one-and-one. Seton Hall is good, but until the Hall avoids upset losses, fans will be leery to go all-in.

6. Cincinnati: Just how good are the Bearcats? We’ll know by the middle of next week. This is Cincinnati’s gauntlet: at Connecticut, at West Virginia and then home against Syracuse. One win would be good, two huge and three a reason for serious joy in the streets.

7. Marquette: The Golden Eagles went back to their bread and butter, their defense, to beat skidding Pittsburgh. But one thing that’s becoming obvious: The margin for error for Marquette is slim.

8. Notre Dame: Tim Abromaitis remains the Irish’s leading scorer, despite not playing since tearing his ACL after Game 2. That tells you all you need to do know about the good job Mike Brey has done retooling this team into something respectable. The sledding gets harder now, with ranked opponents in three of Notre Dame’s next five games.

9. Louisville: The reeling Cardinals got exactly what the doctor ordered: a game against DePaul, one of the league’s lower-tier teams. Russ Smith looks like the key puzzle piece for a team that struggles offensively. The sixth man makes his coach crazy, but Louisville needs to afford Smith some freedom if it’s going to score. It also needs Kyle Kuric back.

10. South Florida: Success for the Bulls has to come in increments, and beating a ranked opponent for the first time in 11 years counts. South Florida’s inability to score makes nothing easy.

11. Rutgers: This is just the way it’s going to be for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are young and so the same team that can beat Florida and Connecticut and hold Pitt to 39 points can, in fact, lose by 24 to West Virginia.

12. St. John's: Here’s what you can know for sure about the Red Storm: Moe Harkless and D'Angelo Harrison are terrific. After that, how do you fairly judge a team with a roster full of freshmen, no head coach and players transferring? St. John’s is skidding (losing four of its last five) with little reason to believe it can right itself.

13. Villanova: The Wildcats just aren’t very good. There’s a host of reasons -- youth, inexperience -- but bottom line, Maalik Wayns is left to do everything on his own. He’s trying, scoring 39 in Villanova’s loss to Cincinnati, but it’s just not enough.

14. DePaul: The Blue Demons are better. But better still isn’t equating to improved results, especially on the road. A victim of tough scheduling, DePaul has lost its past three games away from home. With two now back in Chicago, the Blue Demons need to get back on track.

15. Providence: The Friars lost to Syracuse and lost badly, but credit Ed Cooley for benching leading scorer Vincent Council. As he tries to rebuild Providence, Cooley has to set a standard regardless of what it might do to the win-loss column.

16. Pittsburgh: Put the Panthers right up there next to the pyramids as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. One of the most consistent teams in the country is now consistently awful. Fans are now looking for respectable losses, like ones in which Pitt scores more than 39.

Pitino and his Cards keep finding a way

December, 3, 2011

LOUISVILLE -- Kyle Kuric swished two huge shots to force overtime and Peyton Siva made the game-winning layup in Louisville’s 62-60 victory over Vanderbilt at the KFC Yum! Center on Friday.

But the real life-saver in the Cardinals’ win never left the bench.

Rick Pitino has an NCAA title ring in his jewelry box and is the only coach to lead three different schools to the Final Four. Still, in a roundabout way, what Pitino has done at Louisville the past few seasons is as impressive as any feat on the future Hall of Famer's résumé.

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesPeyton Siva came through with the game winner as the seconds ticked away in overtime on Friday.
One year after leading a team with a glaring talent deficiency to a 25-win season and a third-place finish in the Big East, Pitino has the Cardinals off to a 7-0 start despite a list of injuries that would cause most programs to wilt.

McDonald’s All-American Wayne Blackshear has yet to play because of a shoulder injury. Mike Marra is done for the season with a torn ACL. Rakeem Buckles is working his way back from knee surgery, while Elisha Justice (broken nose) and Stephan Van Treese (knee) are out indefinitely.

Yet here are the Cardinals, undefeated and ranked sixth in the country.

“Never have I had as much fun coaching as I have the last two years,” Pitino said. “This team epitomizes everything you want in a team in terms of rooting for each other and not giving up.”

The reason for Louisville’s resolve is simple.

“We’re a reflection of our coach,” Siva said.

Indeed, it was a only a few years ago when some college basketball fans were calling for Pitino to resign following a messy off-court situation in which he was accused of impregnating a woman and then paying for her to have an abortion.

Still, rather than walking away from the game in shame, Pitino surged forward. Instead of floundering in the face of adversity, he flourished.

“We’re never going to give up,” Siva said. “Whether we’re out there with broken legs or broken noses or hands or whatever, we’re going to go out there and play for our coach. He puts so much hard work into practice and hard work into us. This is our time to show that we’re going to battle for him.”

The Cardinals’ talent level hasn’t been as high lately as it’s been in the past. Terrence Williams and Earl Clark were both NBA draft lottery picks in 2009, but since that time Louisville hasn’t had many NBA-caliber players on its roster.

While the situation might not speak all that well for Pitino’s recent accomplishments on the recruiting trail, it’s magnified his prowess on the sideline. No team in the country has made so much out of so little the past few seasons.

Louisville is counting on its fortunes changing as players such as Buckles and freshman Kevin Ware -- who becomes eligible Dec. 14 -- work their way into the rotation. Blackshear could be back by late January.

In the meantime, Louisville is achieving success thanks to a menacing defense and an aggressive mindset that allows it to fight back just as victories seem to be slipping away. Last season, the Cardinals won six games by five points or fewer. Three of its victories were in overtime.

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesUL keeps piling up injuries and just keeps winning under Rick Pitino.
“We’ve been winning close games the past two years,” Pitino said. “So I don’t think we have to learn, because we learned last year. It’s a treat to coach this team because you see so many great comebacks. There are times when you think they are dead, and then you just look up and we win the game.”

Friday was one of those occasions.

The Cardinals trailed by nine with less than eight minutes remaining and by six with less than four minutes remaining before battling back to force overtime against the 19th-ranked Commodores. Vanderbilt appeared to have the momentum after jumping out to a 55-50 lead early in the extra period, but Louisville fought right back and took a 58-57 lead on Kuric’s 3-pointer from the left corner with one minute left.

A pair of free throws by Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins made it 60-60 with 12 seconds left. That’s when Siva took the inbounds pass, jogged up the court and blew by two defenders on his way to the game-winning layup with 1.2 seconds remaining on the clock.

“I just wanted to go jump in the crowd or something,” Siva said. “I was saying, ‘God, thank you for letting me make that shot -- but please don’t let them hit a buzzer-beater from half court.’ ”

Instead, the Commodores never got off a shot, and a wild celebration ensued as the final horn sounded. Beaming from ear to ear near the sideline was Louisville’s 59-year-old head coach.

More than 600 wins and three decades since beginning his career, Pitino has never looked better.

Rapid Reaction: Louisville 62, Vandy 60

December, 2, 2011

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Peyton Siva shook off two defenders on his way to an uncontested layup with 1.4 seconds remaining to lift Louisville to a 62-60 overtime victory over Vanderbilt at the KFC Yum! Center.

The Cardinals trailed 55-50 early in the extra period before two heroic shots by Kyle Kuric help set up Siva's game-winner. The first was a 3-pointer that turned a 57-55 deficit into a 58-57 lead with one minute remaining. Then, with 33 seconds left, Kuric broke a 58-58 tie on a pull-up jumper from 10 feet. Vanderbilt's John Jenkins knotted the score at 60 at the 12-second mark before Siva jogged down the court, blew past his man and scored the deciding basket.

Louisville missed a chance to win it in regulation when freshman Chane Behanan missed a point-blank shot under the basket at the buzzer after using a nice pump fake to get an open look. Then again, Vanderbilt would've had a comfortable lead if not for its performance at the free-throw line, where it missed 11 of its 17 attempts before the extra period. The Commodores led 47-41 before Louisville ended the half on a 9-3 run to force overtime.

Star of the game: Siva and Kuric will receive the most praise, and deservedly so. But Behanan had a huge second half for Louisville. He scored seven of his team's points during a 13-4 run that turned a 43-34 deficit into a 47-47 tie. Backed by a deafening crowd, Louisville maintained the momentum for the rest of the game. Behanan finished the night with a double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds).

What it means: Louisville continues to show toughness and grit despite being grossly undermanned, mainly because of injuries. The Cardinals are underwhelming offensively, but they make up for it by playing a menacing defense that will give Rick Pitino's squad a chance in almost every game it plays. Louisville doesn't look like the sixth-best team in the country, and Vanderbilt was the first marquee opponent the Cardinals have defeated this season. Still, it's hard to not respect this team, which is led by one of the top coaches in America. Pitino is only getting better.

This is the third disappointing setback for a Vanderbilt squad that entered the season ranked No. 7. This one might not sting as much as Cleveland State and Xavier because it was on the road against a top-10 opponent. Still, Kevin Stallings' squad had every chance in the world to win this game, but the Commodores choked it away with poor free-throw shooting, sloppy passing and bad shooting, some of which was because of Louisville.

Up next: Vanderbilt has one more game, at Davidson on Wednesday, before the long-awaited debut of center Festus Ezeli on Dec. 17 against Indiana State. Louisville will have a chance to maintain its unbeaten start against IUPUI (Wednesday) and Fairleigh-Dickinson (Dec. 10) before hosting old rival Memphis on Dec. 17.

Rapid Reax: Louisville 69, Butler 53

November, 19, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- A quick look at Louisville's 69-53 win over Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday:

How it happened: Butler controlled the pace of the game in the first half and got hot shooting from guard Chase Stigall; Louisville trailed until the late moments of the first half and held a narrow 29-28 lead at the buzzer. But the game opened almost immediately in the second, as the Cardinals locked down Stigall, kept Andrew Smith from getting touches in the post and found their offense on the other end. Kyle Kuric's shooting was the key to opening the lead -- his back-to-back field goals (one a 3, one a long 2) opened Louisville's lead to 11 with 6:14 left in the second half. Rick Pitino's team never looked back.

Star of the game: Kuric's shooting wasn't just timely -- it was also consistent. The sharpshooter made 7 of his 11 field goal attempts, finishing with 17 points, six rebounds and three assists.

Honorable mention: Butler forward Khyle Marshall flashed the versatile game that caused many preseason prognosticators (yours truly included) to consider him a potential breakout star for the Bulldogs. Marshall mixed 18-foot jumpers with silky left-handed dives to the rim -- where he frequently avoided impressive shot-blocking efforts from Louisville center Gorgui Dieng -- and finished with 20 points (8-of-13 shooting) and six rebounds. Marshall has started slowly this season, but this game should raise some eyebrows.

What it means: Butler is and will remain a young, developing team. There are talented new pieces here -- Marshall and Smith are being called upon to provide much bigger roles, and little-used guard Chrishawn Hopkins is getting major minutes alongside veteran point guard Ronald Nored. This team should gel and improve over the course of the season, but that improvement will take time.

For Louisville, the win is a promising sign of things to come. The Cardinals are without their starting point guard Peyton Siva, whom Pitino has called his best player, and are using a combination of Russ Smith and walk-on Elisha Justice to fill the role. Meanwhile, Mike Marra is out for the season and freshman forward Wayne Blackshear is set to miss significant time before any potential return. Even so, Pitino's banged-up team entered a tough environment -- Butler's storied Hinkle Fieldhouse was packed and rocking Saturday -- against an intelligent, well-coached team, and came away with a 16-point win. Impressive.