College Basketball Nation: Luke Hancock

ORLANDO, Fla. -- After Louisville guard Russ Smith went 1-of-5 from the floor and turned the ball over five times against Saint Louis in the first half on Saturday, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino pulled him aside in the locker room at halftime.

“Russ, there’s a lot better coaches than me in the other locker room, but picture if I was in the other locker room,” Pitino told him. “Do you think I would even let you breathe any time down the court? Do you think I would let you breathe?”

“No, Coach,” Smith told Pitino . “You would double me, you would trap me.”

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AP Photo/John RaouxThough he struggled with his shot (3-of-10), Louisville guard Russ Smith scored 11 points and had seven assists in the Cardinals' win over Saint Louis.
“So don’t you think the other coaches are doing the same thing?” Pitino asked him. “All the great ones from Michael Jordan to Kobe [Bryant], they don’t try to score 20 points in the first quarter. They get everybody else the ball and they let the game come to them, and then the other team fatigues and things open up.”

Smith, a senior from Brooklyn, N.Y., must have listened to Pitino’s advice because he played much better in the second half, leading the No. 4 seed Cardinals to a 66-51 rout of the fifth-seeded Billikens in a round-of-32 game in the Midwest Region of the NCAA tournament at Amway Center.

The Cardinals, the defending national champions, will meet the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 1 seed Wichita State and No. 8 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis on Friday.

Smith finished with 11 points and seven assists, and he didn’t try to force things against Saint Louis’ suffocating defense as much as he did in the first half.

“Russ Smith has grown so much as a basketball player,” Pitino said. “But he still has one thing left, and I tried to explain this to him at halftime. He has a very difficult time because he’s a distracted young man. His last lesson is to play like he did in the second half. He doesn’t understand the scouting of the other teams. He’s all Michael, all Kobe. He doesn't get it. So we're going to give him shock treatment on Monday."

Smith said he’s willing to do whatever it takes to help the Cardinals move forward in the tournament.

“I agree with anything [Pitino] says,” Smith said. “He’s gotten me to the point of being an All-American. Everything he says is correct. I’m just playing to win. I’ll do whatever I have to do.”

Against Saint Louis, less from Smith turned out to be more in the second half. Pitino warned his team that Saint Louis’ slow pace and stingy defense would frustrate them.

“They watched the Pitt-Florida game, and I said, ‘Guys, that’s the exact game you’re going to be in. You’re going to have to be the prettiest team in an ugly game because that’s the way it’s going to be,'" Pitino said.

Pitino’s comments were prophetic because the Billikens and Cardinals slugged their way through a forgettable first half. Louisville shot 40.9 percent in the first half; Saint Louis shot 28.6 percent. The Billikens went 0-for-15 on 3-pointers in the game.

After taking a 25-16 lead over the Billikens at the half, the Cardinals couldn’t make anything at the start of the second. Louisville went nearly six minutes without making a field goal -- its only points came on a pair of free throws on a Saint Louis technical foul. But after the Billikens went ahead 29-27 on forward Rob Loe’s layup with 14:17 to go, Smith ended Louisville’s drought with a basket and then made two foul shots on the next trip for a 31-29 lead.

After Louisville forward Luke Hancock made 3-pointers on consecutive trips a few minutes later, the Cardinals finally seemed to be back in rhythm.

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David Manning/USA TODAY SportsLuke Hancock led the Cardinals with 21 points, including four 3-pointers.
“The emphasis we put on taking the 3-point shot away was big, and we just wanted to grind out a ‘W,’” Pitino said. “It’s not every game that you can play up and down, like if it’s Houston or Connecticut, the teams that run. This is a team that will turn you over, they’ll grind you out, and they play everybody close. We were real proud of our effort defensively. We grinded out a win, and that’s what the NCAA tournament is all about.”

Maybe that’s why Smith was trying to force things so much early against Saint Louis. During Louisville’s run to a national championship last season, the Cardinals breezed through their region in reaching the Final Four. They beat North Carolina A&T by 31 points, Colorado State by 26, Oregon by 8 and Duke by 22.

Then Louisville won close games over Wichita State and Michigan to earn Pitino a second national championship.

“[This year] feels good,” Smith said. “Nothing is going to feel like last year. We were clobbering teams. Last year’s team is incomparable. The new guys are hungry, but this team is different. This is our first year playing together. Last year, we’d been playing together for three years. We all have new roles this year and there’s different chemistry. I feel good about our guys and where they are.”

After the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, the defending national champions have as much of a chance as anyone else to win another title.

“Obviously, they’ve got a chance to repeat,” Saint Louis coach Jim Crews said. “They’re going to be in the final 16, so they’ve got a better chance than the other 314. [Their chances] are a lot better than us."

ORLANDO -- Florida hardly looked like the No. 1 overall seed Thursday night in its opening-round game of the NCAA tournament.

And Louisville didn’t look much better in its first NCAA tournament game in defense of its national championship.

Both will be looking for redemption when they play round-of-32 games Saturday, with another trip to the Sweet 16 on the line:

South Region: No. 1 seed Florida (33-2) vs. No. 9 seed Pittsburgh (26-9), 12:15 p.m. ET Saturday

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AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackCasey Prather and No. 1 seed Florida must play better in order to beat No. 9-seeded Pittsburgh.
Florida, which has won a school-record 27 games in a row and hasn’t lost since Dec. 2, had to work much harder than expected in a 67-55 win over No. 16 seed Albany in a second-round game of the South Region.

The surging Panthers walloped No. 8 seed Colorado 77-48 Thursday.

“It was good enough to win, but is it good enough to play against a team like Pittsburgh? Probably not,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “But I’m proud of our guys because they found a way to win when they didn’t play their best. And you know what? They’ve always been really good at being able to learn valuable lessons in a lot of ways. So hopefully they’ll be able to come back and correct that and do a little bit better.”

The Gators will probably have to be much better against Pittsburgh, which is a lot bigger and more physical than the Great Danes. Albany, which had to win a first-round game against Mount St. Mary’s on Tuesday night to earn the trip to Orlando, trailed UF by only six points at the half and tied the score at 39 with about 14 minutes to play. The Gators finally pulled away with a 9-0 run in the final 10 minutes.

“I think in this tournament you have to be aware that every team is fighting for their life, and the goal is just to survive,” Gators center Patric Young said. “Moving forward, we have to make sure we do whatever it takes just to survive and every team is going to be trying to keep that same mindset of just moving on to the next round. Hopefully, we can keep it going, as well.”

Pittsburgh, which led Colorado by 28 points at the half and committed only three turnovers in the game, seems to be hitting its stride. The Panthers won 16 of their first 17 games this season, then dropped six of 10 after losing sixth man Durand Johnson to a season-ending knee injury.

Pittsburgh has played better lately, though, winning four of five, including an 80-75 victory over North Carolina in the ACC tournament.

Pitt was 1-7 against ranked opponents this season and is 2-15 all time against the country’s top-ranked team.

“I think we feel like we’re playing really good basketball,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “We think we’re playing our best. We played well in the ACC tournament. We didn’t win it, but we thought we were playing better and we played good the other day. I think all that matters is not so much the seed but how you feel like you’re playing and how you are playing.”

Midwest Region: No. 4 seed Louisville (30-5) vs. No. 5 seed Saint Louis (27-6), 2:45 p.m. ET Saturday

Louisville and Saint Louis were in even more trouble than Florida on Thursday night.

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David Manning-USA TODAY SportsRuss Smith and fourth-seeded Louisville struggled against No. 13 seed Manhattan. The Cardinals face No. 5 seed Saint Louis on Saturday.
The Cardinals trailed No. 13 seed Manhattan 58-55 with less than 3˝ minutes to go. But then Louisville stars Russ Smith and Luke Hancock bailed out their team by scoring 14 of their final 16 points, leading the Cardinals to a 71-64 victory over the upstart Jaspers.

The Billikens trailed No. 12 seed NC State by 14 points with 5 minutes to go, and eight points with 90 seconds to go, but somehow won the game 83-80 in overtime.

Louisville and Saint Louis will meet on Saturday, with the winner advancing to next week’s Midwest Region semifinals in Indianapolis.

“We won the game, but any team in this tournament [can win],” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “Albany played Florida to the mat. Because of everybody leaving so early, that’s what makes March Madness so much fun. I think we’re a very good basketball team. I thought Manhattan was the better team [Thursday night] until 4 minutes to go in the game, and then we were the better team.”

Manhattan’s familiarity with Louisville -- Jaspers coach Steve Masiello played for Pitino at Kentucky and coached under him at Louisville -- made things more difficult for the Cardinals. Louisville missed 13 of its first 17 shots in the second half.

But Saint Louis and Louisville also are very similar. The Billikens have started five seniors in all but three games this season, and they’re built on defense. Saint Louis ranks eighth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 91.4 points per 100 possessions. Louisville, which starts three seniors, ranks sixth in adjusted defensive efficiency (90.6 points).

"It's like watching one of [SMU] coach Larry Brown's teams," Pitino said. "You weren't quite sure whether his team executed better on offense or defense, and that's indicative of Saint Louis and Jim [Crews]' teams. They execute at both ends of the floor in a terrific fashion. Obviously they've got seniors, and seniors execute very well, and they're very impressive."

One group of seniors will be together on the court for another chance Saturday.

“We’ve been the underdog pretty much my entire time at Saint Louis, so it’s nothing new,” Saint Louis forward Dwayne Evans said. “But to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, and obviously Louisville won it last year. I think we have the team to do it."

ORLANDO, Fla. -- For more than 36 ˝ minutes on Thursday night, it seemed as if No. 13 seed Manhattan knew exactly what defending national championship Louisville was going to do.

When the Cardinals tried to find shooters on the wing, the Jaspers were there to cut them off.

When Louisville tried to toss the ball inside, Manhattan’s swarming defenders surrounded the post players.

“We played the best we could,” Louisville guard Russ Smith said. “Manhattan knew us and anticipated everything we were going to do. They played a perfect game and couldn’t have scripted it any better.”

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLuke Hancock finished with 16 points for Louisville.
Led by coach Steve Masiello, who played for Rick Pitino at Kentucky and coached under him at Louisville, the Jaspers wrote the perfect script, putting the Cardinals on the ropes time and again in the second half of a Midwest Region second-round game at Amway Center. But while Manhattan had the perfect game plan, the Cardinals had the better leading men.

Smith and fellow senior Luke Hancock scored 14 of the Cardinals’ final 16 points, helping them erase a late deficit in a 71-64 victory. Louisville advanced to play No. 5 seed Saint Louis in Saturday’s third round.

“It was big,” Hancock said. “Nobody wants to go home on the first day. We’re trying to build a legacy. This is another step and it would have been tough to go home tonight.”

Louisville missed 13 of its first 17 shots in the second half and fell behind 58-55 with less than 3 ˝ minutes to go. But then Smith, who bruised his thumb early in the first half, made a 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie the score at 58. He scored 18 points on 3-for-9 shooting, with 11 points coming at the foul line.

“I finally got open after 36 minutes of stifling defense,” Smith said. “I’m just happy winning. I wasn’t trying to do too much, but I also didn’t want to lose. For me to get a look like that and knock it down, after Manhattan defended me so well, was pretty big.”

After the Jaspers went back in front 60-58 on Tyler Wilson’s layup with 2:34 to go, Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear made a bank shot to tie the score at 60. Then Hancock stole an ill-advised, cross-court pass in Manhattan’s backcourt and was fouled driving to the rim. He knocked down two foul shots, and then drained a 3-pointer from the right wing to give Louisville a 68-62 lead with 27.2 seconds to play.

“We just played a great team and needed a couple of bounces to go our way,” Hancock said. “Luckily, I found myself open in that matchup zone they run so well. I got two good looks at the end and they went in.”

Hancock, who was the Most Outstanding Player of last season’s Final Four, scoring 22 points in the Cardinals’ 82-76 win over Michigan in the championship game, wasn’t aggressive enough early in Thursday’s game, according to Pitino. Hancock finished with 16 points on 4-for-10 shooting, going 2-for-5 on 3-pointers.

“He was passing up some shots, and we need him to shoot the ball,” Pitino said. “I told him, ‘If you don’t shoot the ball when you’re open,’ and then I said some other expletives. But I said, ‘You shoot that ball because they’re all going to come after Russ. Russ obviously had one of his off nights, and when you see Russ play that way, it’s because the defense made him have an off night. I knew they would do it to him.”

The Cardinals got everything they needed from their stars when it mattered most.

“Coach Masiello was one of the designers of our defense,” Smith said. “It was very frustrating because he knew everything we wanted to run. Every opponent scouts you, but it’s different when they run the same system. They knew the counter to our counter.”

But the Jaspers had no answer for Louisville’s one-two punch at the end.

“We needed this type of game,” said Pitino, who was pleased his team did not tense up. “Winning by 60 and 40 doesn’t make you a better basketball team.”

CINCINNATI -- Louisville's 58-57 road win Saturday bore some resemblance to Rick Pitino's new facial hair. Not always smooth. Definitely some scraggly patches.

But, like the beards Pitino and his players began sporting before Valentine's Day, the No. 11 Cardinals might not be going away anytime soon. Much as they did a year ago at this time, the defending national champions are displaying noticeable growth in February. Louisville (23-4) has won six straight and got its first major scalp of the season by nipping No. 7 Cincinnati in a close shave.

"This was big for us," swingman Wayne Blackshear said. "There were a lot of doubters out there saying how good are we because we can't beat a ranked team. But obviously we pulled one out today."

It took a signature moment of Russdiculousness for the Cardinals to finally earn that cornerstone victory. Russ Smith knocked down a jumper from the left elbow with 2.2 seconds left, helping Louisville avenge a three-point home loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 30 and creating a virtual tie atop the American Athletic Conference standings with the Bearcats.

That Smith would take and make the game winner came as no surprise. The unexpected part was that his late-game unselfishness proved the difference in a back-and-forth street brawl of a contest.

Cincinnati erased a 10-point second-half deficit and led 55-52 with just 1:28 left after Justin Jackson sank two free throws. After a timeout, Smith dumped the ball to Montrezl Harrell for a dunk off a designed pick-and-roll. On Louisville's next possession, Smith contorted through traffic to find Harrell for an easy layup.

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Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsAfter finally beating a ranked team, Russ Smith and Louisville are getting better and better as March approaches.
Down by two points with under 10 seconds to go, Smith drove left off a Blackshear screen. The Bearcats met him with a double-team, so he passed the ball out to Terry Rozier on the wing. Rozier took one dribble and rose up, later saying he thought about shooting it. But, at the last moment, he spotted Smith standing alone to his left and passed it back, showing uncanny poise for a true freshman.

"It was a great play," Pitino said, "but it was an even better play by Terry."

There's little doubt that trigger-happy Smith would have jacked up a quick shot rather than work for a better one early in his career. But the senior -- who made only three field goals Saturday -- said he showed maturity by searching for his teammates against the Bearcats.

"That was the right thing to do," he said. "That was the basketball play, to give it up.

"I knew scoringwise that I wasn't going to beat Cincinnati. It was going to be a team effort, and I was going to have to find people, get Montrezl going, get everybody else going. I feel really good about the decisions I made down the stretch."

Louisville won in an extremely hostile environment despite getting only 10 points from Smith and enduring one of Luke Hancock's worst games (0-for-6 from the floor, five fouls). That's because other players are starting to contribute more, which is a great sign for the Cardinals as March approaches.

In a fitting regular-season halt to this rivalry -- the two teams have no scheduled games in the foreseeable future after the Cardinals bolt to the ACC -- every play in the paint turned into a mosh pit of flying body parts. No one enjoyed that more than 235-pound Harrell, who led Louisville with 21 points and 10 rebounds. That marked Harrell's sixth double-double in his past 12 games, and Pitino said the sophomore forward is "really developing into a great basketball player."

"I just try to go out there and be that one to dive on the ball or hustle down to the block," Harrell said. "Just do something to get my team going and hope they feed off my energy."

Rozier, a nonfactor much of the season, added 11 points and has scored in double figures in three straight. He provided key minutes and defense Saturday as Hancock struggled.

"I never really played that much against good teams earlier in the year," Rozier said. "[Pitino's] confidence in me is definitely growing, and I'm getting more minutes and more looks. He's starting to trust me."

Even Blackshear, who has had a frustrating tendency to disappear in big games, came up with the key defensive play by blocking a Sean Kilpatrick layup attempt with 47 seconds left.

Pitino said he gave the same pregame speech he delivered before last year's Final Four game against Wichita State, telling his players the better defensive team would win. Neither team shot well in what Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin described as a "bloodbath," but Louisville held the Bearcats to a season-low 28.6 percent from the floor. That included a 3-for-26 start to the game.

Kilpatrick matched the 28 points he scored in last month's win at the KFC Yum! Center but had to work much harder for his points as the Cardinals' aggressive zone often kept him far from the lane. He hit just nine of his 26 shots and -- after an 11-for-11 free throw performance in the first meeting -- missed a foul shot that could have given his team a three-point cushion in the final two minutes.

The Bearcats (24-4) lost for just the second time since Dec. 14. Meanwhile, the Cardinals appear to be taking off at the right time. They vowed before last week's win at Temple not to shave again until they lost a game. Results have varied on that fuzzy front.

"I look like a 61-year-old, aging Al Pacino," Pitino joked after the game.

The most striking facial features among the Louisville contingent Saturday afternoon were the broad smiles through the whiskers. The beards will continue to grow. So, too, does this team's outlook.
The first time Louisville and Cincinnati met this season, the Bearcats were the victors. Barely.

That 69-66 win for Cincy on Jan. 30 is the only home loss on Louisville’s résumé since Jan. 12. The Cards have won nine of their past 10, with Cincinnati as its lone blemish during this stretch.

It was an interesting matchup. Louisville outscored Cincinnati 46-41 in the second half and forced 20 turnovers. But Sean Kilpatrick’s 28-point effort was too much for the Cardinals to overcome.

Even though that game was just three weeks ago, this next matchup might involve new factors that weren’t as prominent in the first meeting.

Both Cincy and Louisville are receiving contributions from young players on their rosters. Russ Smith versus Kilpatrick might have been the headline last month, but this game is not about two players. It’s about two teams competing for the American Athletic Conference crown and prepping for March while gaining traction as their freshmen and sophomores continue to mature and produce down the stretch.

Those youngsters could be the deciding factors in a matchup between two teams in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.

Freshman Terry Rozier took seven shots in the first matchup against Cincinnati. But he’s 11-for-24 with 29 points, seven rebounds, four assists, five steals and two turnovers in Louisville’s past two games. Mangok Mathiang has gone through growing pains in his first few seasons, but the big man looks more comfortable now with the idea of hoisting up the occasional forever-unblockable hook shot inside. And other than a 47 percent clip from the charity stripe, Montrezl Harrell's numbers (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.3 bpg) are impressive. That trio could give Louisville an edge against the Bearcats.

But Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin hopes a few of his underclassmen will help on Saturday and beyond, too.

Shaquille Thomas (7.1 ppg), a 6-foot-7 forward, comes and goes. But in the team’s past two games, the sophomore has scored 19 points and connected on 50 percent of his shots. There’s always a chance that he’ll have a big day. He’s talented enough to make a difference. Freshman Troy Caupain has had five double-digit scoring efforts this season. And he’s a solid shooter from outside. Will he make noise in this high-profile matchup?

Justin Jackson, Luke Hancock, Smith and Kilpatrick will be the players who will carry a chunk of the weight for their respective squads.

But this one could be close again. And it could come down to a handful of plays, plays that some newer faces might have to make in this crucial AAC matchup.

STORRS, Conn. -- After 677 career wins and two national titles, Louisville coach Rick Pitino is not a man accustomed to ceding control of a timeout. But Saturday night, just before the biggest shot of the biggest win of Louisville’s season, he passed the figurative whiteboard to Montrezl Harrell.

It was the 18:40 mark of the second half, and UConn guard Shabazz Napier had just hit a long 3-pointer to tie the game 34-34 -- the first tie since the opening minutes of the first half. Gampel Pavilion was roaring. Pitino called a timeout. He began to draw up a play -- some way the Cardinals could get an easy bucket, maybe knock some of the steam out of frenzied Gampel Pavilion -- which is when Harrell spoke up.

“It was a back-door play off our quick action,” Pitino said. “And actually Montrezl made the call. He said, ‘I think I can get Luke [Hancock] on the back door.’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

After the timeout, Harrell set a backscreen on Napier, Hancock’s defender, who found himself trailing his man by a foot when Stephan Van Treese laid two more screens on the opposite wing. The third gave Hancock the space he needed, and his 3 kick-started the 11-0 run that broke Louisville’s 76-64 win open.

Pitino’s credit-where-due recounting of that timeout was the most surprising of Harrell’s contributions Saturday night, but it was hardly the most important. Harrell also had 13 rebounds, three blocks, 39 minutes on the floor, affected a number of shots without fouling -- and, last but not least, had 18 points on just 10 shots.

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David Butler II/USA TODAY SportsThe diversification of Montrezl Harrell's game was on full display at UConn, where Louisville gained a signature victory Saturday.
It was undoubtedly the best game of Harrell’s career, and there’s no coincidence that it came in the first truly impressive win of Louisville’s season. If the Cardinals become a national title contender in the wake of forward Chane Behanan's dismissal in early January, it will be because Harrell emerges as a star.

He’s not far off as it is. Saturday’s performance -- which buoyed the Cardinals in an otherwise sloppy first half -- showcased a host of skills Harrell has been gradually unveiling in recent weeks: strength around the rim, touch from range, angular savvy on the defensive end, and a rebounding safety net on both ends of the floor. Louisville grabbed 78.4 percent of available defensive rebounds Saturday night, 10 of which went to Harrell.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, Pitino’s team attempted 34 of its 57 shots inside the paint. Twelve of Harrell’s 18 points came in the lane, including 10 of his first-half 15. The Huskies, for all their speed on the wing, had no answer. After Hancock’s shot and the 11-0 run -- right around the time UConn coach Kevin Ollie was thrown out of the game via a pair of questionable technical fouls -- the interior mismatch had essentially decided the game.

Harrell’s breakout is the culmination of months spent drilling footwork and flexibility. The result is a player with an increasing array of over-the-shoulder post moves, one more comfortable catching the ball on the block and reading the defense, one who doesn’t need the perfect pass or an offensive rebound to be effective around the rim.

“What he’s needed to work on is his footwork in the low post,” Pitino said. “The jump shot is fine, but if he’s going to make it at the next level, that’s what [the NBA] wants to see. They saw a lot of it tonight.”

In the past, Pitino has often described Harrell as “too erect.” It’s an affliction many highly touted post players suffer from early in their college careers: In high school, merely being taller than everyone on the court is usually more than enough. Bending your knees and battling for position is often beside the point.

Harrell played an important role off the bench in the Cardinals’ national title run as a freshman, but was never a featured player because he never needed to be. Now, with Behanan booted from the program and Gorgui Dieng in the NBA, the Cardinals can’t win without him. And so Harrell has begun to listen to the singular piece of instruction his coach is constantly begging him to heed. He’s bending his knees.

“It really is just a little thing like that,” Harrell said. “Stay down, bending my knees, being ready to make a move, making sure I’m ready to go.”

“You saw him do a lot of that stuff in the summer and in the fall,” guard Russ Smith said. “He would hit that jumper, that little hook shot. But it’s hard to bring what you’re doing in the gym into the game. I recently had this dribble move-bounce pass thing I was working on in the gym and I tried to do it in a game and it went out of bounds. It just takes time to work that stuff in.”

Whatever Harrell is working, he’s doing so at the perfect time. Louisville’s loss to Memphis Jan. 9 was just the latest disappointing result for a defending national champion whose best resume win prior to Saturday was either a 31-point home victory over Southern Miss or last week’s 71-63 win over SMU. While the Cardinals weren’t in danger of missing the 2014 NCAA tournament, getting into mid-January without a tentpole victory wasn’t part of the plan, either.

Now, after holding off UConn in its own building -- the same UConn that won at Memphis earlier this week -- the Cardinals might finally be getting the kind of interior play they need to pair with a skilled and versatile backcourt.

“Every time we rebound the basketball and outrebound our opponent we win like 95 percent of our games,” Pitino said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t outrebounded a whole lot of opponents.

“But when we have this kind of rebounding and play from Montrezl Harrell, who the last three weeks has really improved his post game … who’s worked very hard on his footwork. And he deserves a massive amount of credit for working that hard.”

And a little credit for a play-call, too. Don’t expect to see Harrell with the whiteboard in his hand anytime soon. But if he can stay on the floor, knees bent all the while, Louisville’s post-Behanan prospectus might not be so downcast after all.


LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Memphis and Louisville are old rivals, dating back to their days as league partners in the Missouri Valley, Metro and Conference USA.

For one more year, they're playing together in the same conference. And on Thursday night, Memphis showed that the Cardinals aren't simply going to roll through the American Athletic without some company.

The defending national champions were the overwhelming choice to run away with the American title this year before moving on to the ACC. But the No. 24 Tigers beat No. 12 Louisville 73-67 at the Cardinals’ own game and on their own court while proving there's more than one contender in this league.

If you needed any proof that this was an important win for the Tigers, you only had to look at head coach Josh Pastner after the buzzer sounded. Pastner pumped his fist and shot back at some Louisville fans in the KFC Yum! Center crowd who he said had been ripping his team's academic prowess. Pastner said later that's all part of the rivalry, one in which the Cardinals had won four straight dating back to 2005.

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Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsShaq Goodwin and Memphis were determined to attack the rim against Louisville and it paid off as the Tigers upset the Cardinals.
"It's a big win for the University of Memphis, because since I've been here, we haven't beaten 'em," senior guard Joe Jackson said. "We always had a chance, but we let it slip away."

Not on this night, even after Louisville went up 64-59 after a Montrezl Harrell dunk with 3 minutes, 50 seconds left. Memphis needed only 37 seconds to tie the game back up, and it would score the final seven points of the game.

Rather than hoist up quick 3-pointers after falling behind, Pastner's team stuck to the game plan, which was to attack the rim and pierce Louisville's soft interior. It was a lesson learned painfully last Saturday against Cincinnati, when the Tigers lost 69-53 -- their worst conference defeat in 15 years -- while settling for jumpers and going 2-for-17 from the 3-point line.

Their final 19 points on Thursday night all came on layups, dunks and free throws.

"That's all we talk about -- going downhill, driving the ball and attacking the rim," said Jackson, who scored 15 points. "That's basically the best part of the game. You don't win by taking jump shots; you win from attacking the basket and finishing and making a free throw."

The Tigers said they developed poise and toughness earlier this season in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., where they fought back from a deficit to beat LSU and then defeated Oklahoma State in a rematch from a loss 12 days earlier. They also took Florida to the wire before falling by two last month in the Jimmy V Classic.

"That shows how this team can face adversity," forward Shaq Goodwin said. "We had a couple of battle-tested games, and we ended up coming out with wins."

If only Louisville could say the same thing. The Cardinals' lofty ranking was once again exposed as fool's gold based on their feasting on inferior competition; they entered the night with the No. 269 schedule by strength in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy. In their only tests this season against ranked opponents -- versus North Carolina and at Kentucky -- they lost each decisively. Since Memphis is the only other American Athletic team currently ranked, Thursday night offered Rick Pitino's team one of its few remaining chances for a quality win.

Yet even with 2013 Final Four MVP Luke Hancock finally getting untracked -- he scored 20 points for the first time since the title-game win over Michigan last April -- the Cardinals suffered the same problems that have plagued them in big games this season.

Other than a solid performance from Harrell, who scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half, the Louisville frontcourt contributed almost nothing. Memphis held a 42-34 advantage in the paint, and its guards made better decisions and more plays down the stretch than the Cardinals' backcourt of Russ Smith and Chris Jones, the latter of whom bricked through a 1-of-9 shooting night against his hometown team.

Most tellingly, the Tigers shot 50.9 percent from the field against a team that has long prided itself on defense under Pitino.

"We got confused a couple of times with the game on the line with what defense we were in," Pitino said. "We didn't get confused one time last year. I don't know what's so difficult about it. We only played two."

Pitino, whose team fell to 2-1 early on in American Athletic play, later added that "this is a much tougher league than all of us anticipated." Memphis, which will host Louisville on March 1, aims to make sure that is true.

"We made a statement tonight," senior guard Geron Johnson said, "but we're going to see those guys who knows how many more times. A guaranteed one more time, and then maybe in the conference tournament. So, it's not over."

These two old rivals still have one heated more conference race between them.

Kentucky's other freshmen step up in win

December, 28, 2013

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- As Julius Randle made his way to the locker room -- leg cramps, not Louisville, the only thing that could stop him in Rupp Arena -- it was hard not think back to a Kentucky moment from a year ago.

That situation was far more dire -- his team already trailed by a dozen when Nerlens Noel crashed into a stanchion at Florida.

But there was still a fighting chance left for the season, depending on whom the Cats decided to be. Turns out, those Cats decided to be a shell of their former selves, waving the white flag of surrender and losing five of their final nine, including a dismal NIT loss at Robert Morris.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Harrison (left) and James Young led the Wildcats in scoring with 18 points apiece.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAndrew Harrison (left) and James Young led the Wildcats in scoring with 18 points apiece.
Two months into this season and these Wildcats didn’t know who they were, either -- or who they could be and more, what they wanted to be. After three early losses and some less than inspiring wins, they were a bunch of parts, not a team; a group with a lot of questions and no obvious answers.

There seemed so much wrong with Kentucky that even the usual fervor and blustering surrounding the commonwealth rivalry was quieted.

And then Randle left for the locker room for the final time with 11:01 left in a one-point game against nemesis Louisville.

So just who did Kentucky want to be?

“We wanted to prove to people that we could play together and be a team,’’ James Young said.

In impressive fashion, Kentucky did.

The game tied at 53, Young scored after scooping up a missed shot and the Cats would never trail again, going on to win 73-66.

It helped that Louisville looked thoroughly dysfunctional. Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan are on a milk carton somewhere in Kentucky, missing in action with a woeful 2-of-5 combined shooting effort. Luke Hancock didn’t actually fare much better, going 2-of-8 from the arc and 3-of-11 from the floor.

But this game was as much about what Kentucky did as what Louisville didn’t.

Statistically the Cats played to their strengths, pulling down 17 offensive rebounds for 17 second-chance points, but it’s more how they played and how they looked than what the stat sheet said.

“Did we look more like a basketball team today?’’ John Calipari said. “We looked like a basketball team. Here is what was on the board today -- look like a team; play like a team; fight like a team. That was the key to the game. There was no, ‘let’s guard the pick and roll.’ We have to be more like a team and that’s what they were today.’’

Now anyone who would call the Cats cured of what ails them after one game clearly has never met a teenager. They are as predictable as the shape of paint splatter shot out of a cannon.

It is nothing less than fool’s gold to take a courageous performance in a heated rivalry game in front of a fevered crowd and say the magic wand has been waved for the season.

Calipari admitted as much, happy to point out Kentucky’s lousy free-throw shooting (53 percent) and 3-point shooting (3-of-14). He was so jazzed by the win that he said he’d give his team all of 12 hours to enjoy it.

He plans to practice at 6 p.m. on Sunday.

But there is almost always a turning point in a season, a moment a team can pinpoint and say, "this is where we got our act together." Louisville’s, for example, came in five overtimes last season, in what would be its last loss of the season.

This could very well be Kentucky’s.

“From here on out, we’re just going to be a real good team,’’ Young vowed. “Just going to fight the whole game and not just take quarters off and plays off; just keep fighting.’’

The dirty little secret with the "best college basketball recruiting class ever assembled" is that with the exception of Randle, it has been pretty mediocre. Andrew and Aaron Harrison have been inconsistent and Young has been streaky with his shooting. Only Randle has been steady.

Even playing essentially just one half against Louisville, Randle managed to keep his double-digit scoring streak alive. He had 17 by the break.

Yet without him, Kentucky actually played well, if not better (and let’s pause here for foolishness identification. Anyone who thinks the Cats are "too reliant" on Randle has clearly lost his mind. It’s OK to be reliant on a guy who will be a top-five draft pick).

In place of eye rolling or shoulder sagging from the much-maligned Harrison twins, there was a combined 28 points and (mostly) smart decisions with the ball. From Young, there were three made treys, but also 10 key rebounds.

And from the Cats in general there was a sense of urgency and purpose.

"I know we get criticized a lot for being young and body language and stuff like that, but we knew we could win this game," Andrew Harrison said. “Going against a team like Louisville, we knew we had to bring it."

There always has been ample talent to win an NCAA title here -- probably enough talent to challenge for a D-League title, for that matter.

But all that talent, strangely enough, has been the Cats’ Achilles heel. In high school, in summer league games talent almost always wins. Teams can afford to take a play off here or turn on the jets at the last minute and waltz into the showers with a victory.

With the better part of this roster only a few months removed from the ease of winning, it was hard to convince them things had to be done differently in college.

Now there is evidence -- not just how a team can lose when it doesn’t work together, but how a team can win when it does.

Heels, Cardinals set for matchup

November, 23, 2013

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – There’s no convincing Louisville players that they’re not about to face an elite North Carolina squad at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Most of the third-ranked Cardinals said they had not seen the Tar Heels play this season until they watched the Heels beat Richmond in Saturday's first game of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. Despite Carolina being a shell of the team ranked No. 12 in the preseason, the Cardinals are still showing respect for the name.

Maybe a tad too much respect considering P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald did not make the trip for UNC.

“We know they’re the real deal,” Louisville’s Luke Hancock said. “It’s always going to be Carolina, it’s a top program. Coach [Roy] Williams is going to have them ready to play.”

When the schedule was released, a potential Louisville-Carolina matchup looked to be the first real test for both teams. The reality is it will be more of a barometer for the Tar Heels.

With no word on the status of Hairston and McDonald, whose eligibility is under review by the school and NCAA, Carolina will be playing with its current rotation for the foreseeable future. It’s about to hit a rough five-game stretch that includes a Dec. 4 trip to No. 1 Michigan State and a Dec. 14 home date against No. 4 Kentucky.

“We’re definitely going to try to show up -- well, we will show up -- and compete like we did today,” UNC forward James Michael McAdoo said after Saturday's 82-72 victory over the Spiders. “We’ll start focusing on games like this which are definitely huge games for us going into conference play.”

The Cardinals had the kind of win against Fairfield that coach Rick Pitino can use to grab his team's attention. After winning their first four games by an average of nearly 34 points, Pitino called their 71-57 victory on Saturday their “poorest game of the season.” He even hinted that the Cardinals might have been looking ahead to UNC.

Louisville’s postgame locker room reflected his sentiment. Players sat slumped into their lockers, the entire room void of the laughter and energy usually associated with winning. On the contrary, the Cardinals had the look and feel of a group that had just lost.

“It’s eye-opening for us just to not play as well as we want,” Hancock said. “This type of effort will lose against a lot of teams.”

Forward Montrezl Harrell, who led Louisville with 14 points and 12 rebounds, said the Cardinals played like they didn’t respect Fairfield, and it showed early.

“We should have come out and been prepared to play from the very beginning,” Harrell said. “But we weren’t and got burned for it in the first half. Playing against a team like North Carolina, if we start off like that we can really get burned and not be able to bounce back.”

Pitino even elevated the praise for the Heels, after watching his team shoot just 38 percent and his starting backcourt of Russ Smith and Chris Jones commit a combined eight turnovers.

He said North Carolina's size could give the Cardinals problems, especially with the Heels' offensive rebounding.

“You’re going to see a close game [on Sunday] -- if we don’t get blown out,” Pitino said. “If we play this way, there won’t even be a game.”

Just two games ago, Carolina players were thinking they might not belong on a court with Louisville after struggling to a 62-54 win over Holy Cross. McAdoo joked afterward that if the Heels played that poorly against the Cardinals, all he could do was “hope that Louisville played bad, too.”

The bad news for the Heels is Louisville might have gotten that one out of the way.

“We’ll come back,” Pitino said. “I don’t expect us to have two bad games in a row.”

People sometimes panic during the first few days of the college basketball season.

Kinks and flaws are magnified, even though the sample size is far too small to be used as evidence to produce a realistic conclusion about any program. That doesn’t stop us, however, from making assumptions.

From worrying.

From anticipating doom.

Think Virginia Tech’s fans care that the Hokies’ 64-63 loss to South Carolina Upstate on Saturday was just the first of many games? Think defending ACC champ Miami’s supporters feel calm after Friday night’s 66-62 loss to St. Francis (N.Y.)?

At least those teams had problems that were easily identifiable in the offseason.

Louisville, the defending national champion and No. 3 squad in the Associated Press preseason poll, probably prompted jitters within its fan base after its sloppy start against a bold Charleston program that was down just 49-45 with 6 minutes, 41 seconds to play Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center. A late run finished the Cougars.

But don’t believe the 70-48 final score. Charleston was tougher than that.

For a chunk of the matchup, Louisville was inefficient and ineffective. Missed layups and jump shots. Squandered fast-break opportunities.

Charleston forwards Adjehi Baru and Willis Hall combined for 15 points and 13 rebounds against Louisville. They were probably more comfortable than they would have been with 6-foot-6 forward Chane Behanan, currently serving a suspension, available for the Cardinals. Plus, Luke Hancock was injured.

[+] EnlargeMontrezl Harrell
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyMontrezl Harrell played 33 minutes in Louisville's season opener and had 10 points and eight rebounds.
Still, Louisville launched a 21-3 rally in the final 6:41 that was created by the full-court pressure that has killed the dreams of many Cardinals opponents in recent years. They were brilliant down the stretch.

So what was the problem before that run?

Well, this is not last season's Cardinals squad. That’s obvious, I know.

But Louisville in 2013-14 is different from the team that won the national championship trophy in April. No Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng.

Other players have accepted new roles. Wayne Blackshear goes from young reserve to critical piece in Rick Pitino’s rotation. Montrezl Harrell will play center at times this season when Louisville uses a smaller lineup. He averaged 16.2 minutes per game last season. He played 33 on Saturday.

Chris Jones, the highly touted junior college transfer, was solid in a Division I debut (12 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals) that justified the hype that preceded his arrival. Russ Smith (21 points) struggled from the field (1-for-5 from the 3-point line), but he helped the Cardinals finish strong.

Smith played the last three seasons with Siva next to him. He and Jones could be one of America’s best combos, but they’ll also play some rough basketball -- they certainly did Saturday -- as they continue to learn each other’s tendencies.

Until the Cardinals pulled off that impressive run in the final minutes, a loss seemed possible.

Blackshear, Jones and Smith were 15-for-44 from the field. The Cardinals made 22 percent of their 3-point attempts and 61 percent of their free throws. Not their best day.

But that effort shouldn’t serve as an exhibit for critics. The Cardinals are good. They’re versatile, athletic and relentless on defense. Charleston committed 21 turnovers.

They’re also a team in transition as new faces join old ones and players adapt to new individual expectations. And it showed throughout their first game of the season.

Louisville reached the Final Four in back-to-back seasons with a group that had learned from its experience in 2012 and used that to its advantage in 2013.

Although some of the same players from those teams are on this season's roster, the Cardinals lack continuity. A big part of that change involves Louisville’s switches at key positions (point guard and center) and its reliability on new players.

But the Cardinals can still build a similar level of chemistry. It will take time, though. Behanan and Hancock will return. Harrell and Blackshear will become more comfortable as starters. Freshmen Mangok Mathiang (seven points, 10 rebounds, one block) and Terry Rozier will grow.

But this isn’t last year.

That doesn’t mean Louisville can’t match that team’s achievements, because it can.

Moving forward after losing key players and asking others to assume different roles, however, is never an easy adjustment. Even for a national champion.

That rocky stretch in Saturday’s game proved as much.

And that’s all it proved.
1. The USA's World University Games team will go down as a disappointment for failing to medal in Kazan, Russia. But the intent was to put together a team, not a collection of all-stars. That's exactly what was done in forming the squad. The staff of Bob McKillop (Davidson), Frank Martin (South Carolina) and John Beilein (Michigan) -- a collection of three of the more successful coaches -- will have to decide if they put the players in the right spots after the tournament. But some of the players will also return to the states needing to reassess their season after a subpar performance. A few of them were undecided about whether to declare for the NBA draft or go back to school. Like Adreian Payne of Michigan State, Cory Jefferson of Baylor and Doug McDermott of Creighton. All of three are vital to their team's success next season and McDermott enters as one of the favorites for the national player of the year. The player who deserves the most praise on the team is Louisville's Luke Hancock, who is playing well and through incredible grief after losing his father, William, in late June. Through six games, Hancock was second on the team in scoring and in making 3-pointers. Hancock's play in the WUG and Montrezl Harrell for the gold-medal U-19 FIBA championship team is yet another reason why the Cardinals should be feeling good about being title contenders yet again.

2. Canada's WUG team was undefeated through six games, including a win over the Americans. The play of Brady Heslip (Baylor), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State) and Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State) should bode well for their respective teams and Canada's future. Remember the best Canadians are in the NBA now and will be coming next season too. Consecutive Canadians could be drafted No. 1 from Anthony Bennett to Kansas' Andrew Wiggins. Kelly Olynyk performance for the Celtics in the summer league adds to the depth of this national team. Heslip had a disappointing season a year ago but should be ready to assume more of a leadership role for the Bears. Pangos will be the focal point for the Zags. Ejim is a major player for the Cyclones and Bachynski has to be the interior scorer for the Sun Devils. The front-running school for former Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer has always been Gonzaga and playing with Pangos should be a reason to suspect the Zags will get Wiltjer. Of course, Wiltjer could still decide to come back to Kentucky and either play or redshirt.

3. The freak fractured right ankle for Shane Larkin doesn't mean he didn't make the right decision to leave for the NBA. Larkin suffered the injury while practicing with his Dallas Mavericks team in preparation for the Las Vegas Summer League. Larkin is out for three months with the best-case scenario being that he returns in time for training camp in October. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle was positive about Larkin's return and what he could mean for the Mavericks once healthy. Larkin was a first-round pick and will get serious minutes once he is ready next season. Had he returned to Miami for his junior season then he would have been back for a team that relied too much on him. Larkin wouldn't have been simply a playmaker, he would have had to make the majority of plays and that isn't who he will, or should, be in the NBA. Meanwhile, his injury has likely opened up a chance for Ricky Ledo to earn some time. Ledo left Providence after not being eligible in his one season on campus. Ledo was a long shot to be eligible to play in college and probably made the best decision for his career to leave.
Finding a sentimental, marketable use for the NCAA's would-be discarded Final Four courts is now officially en vogue.

The trend began last summer with Kentucky (of course), which last summer received the 2012 Superdome Final Four floor in a donation from NCAA corporate sponsor Northwestern Mutual, the first of its kind. UK coach John Calipari immediately placed 3,000 square feet of the floor in UK's updated basketball locker rooms, just one more brilliant minor recruiting flourish for a guy who has rewritten the entire book on said. Assuming Northwestern Mutual was happy to keep footing the bill and flipping courts to their national champion counterparts, it was safe to expect other programs to follow in the Wildcats' wake.

Northwestern Mutual followed through again this spring, purchasing and then donating the 2013 Georgia Dome court to the Louisville Cardinals. So, what will U of L do with its memorabilia hardwood? As the Cardinals revealed at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, they already have a few things in mind.

The first is ceremonial. Louisville will cut out the heart of the court -- which features that tidy peach-oriented 2013 Final Four logo, which is only going to get more awesomely kitschy with age -- and hang it in an immense 24 x 28, 6,000-pound frame in the lobby of the KFC Yum! Center. Fans will get a gander every time they enter the building, and that will probably feel very good.

It might not feel quite as good as Phase 2 of the Cardinals plan: Charity auction! After center court is carved and framed, whatever hardwood remains will be chopped up into small pieces and stamped with commemorative logos -- 1,000 of which Rick Pitino will sign. The pieces will then be auctioned off to fans.

This is normally the part where we'd criticize another instance of crass college sports commercialism, but wait, there's more: According to Louisville sports information director Kenny Klein, proceeds from the auction will go to benefit pediatric cancer research. That last bit transforms the entire idea. Louisville probably could have profited from Northwestern Mutual's donation in a real way, and many Cardinals fans would have happily dipped back into their wallets for a real-deal tchotchke to hang in their dens. Instead, that revenue will go to benefit a totally worthy cause. (At the risk of drawing too near a connection, the choice of charity is imbued with even more meaning given the brilliant Final Four performance of forward Luke Hancock in front of his cancer-stricken father, who lost his three-year battle with the disease in June).

In other words: Three cheers for Louisville. If this is going to be a trend -- and thanks to Northwestern Mutual, apparently it is -- then it's hard to imagine a better use for all that leftover wood than its transformation into tangible resources for people trying to cure one of humanity's most pervasive and tragic diseases. Pitino and company set a classy precedent here. Let's hope future champions follow.
1. The Anaheim Classic is going through some changes that should make it a more intimate event, building up toward a more unique championship day. The tournament, played over Thanksgiving weekend, has been at the Anaheim Convention Center, but has had plenty of sparsely populated games. So, the plan is to move the first two days of the tournament to Cal State-Fullerton's Titan Gym. The final day of the event will be played at the Honda Center in Anaheim to give it more of an elite ending. And to raise the profile of the event, the name will no longer be the Anaheim Classic but rather the Wooden Legacy. The first two rounds will be Nov. 28 and 29 with the championship day on Dec. 1. The tournament has headline teams in Creighton, San Diego State, Marquette, Arizona State and Miami with the College of Charleston, George Washington and the host Titans. Fullerton needs to take advantage of their homecourt and play well for two reasons -- to play rare higher-level games at home and to ensure the crowds are decent.

2. The cuts for the World University Games team playing in Russia could be some of the hardest for USA basketball. Junior national director Jim Boeheim of Syracuse will have a hard time whittling down this list. The team, which will train the last week of June in Colorado Springs, should be the overwhelming favorite in the event. But getting down to the cut list of 24 will be quite a chore for Boeheim and WUG coaches Bob McKillop (Davidson), Frank Martin (South Carolina) and John Beilein (Michigan). Here is the list: Eric Atkins (Notre Dame), Markel Brown (Oklahoma State), Deonte Burton (Nevada), Quinn Cook (Duke), Bryce Cotton (Providence), Spencer Dinwiddie (Colorado), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Davante Gardner (Marquette), Treveon Graham (VCU), Jerian Grant (Notre Dame), P.J. Hairston (North Carolina), A.J. Hammons (Purdue), Luke Hancock (Louisville), Joe Harris (UVA), Tyler Haws (BYU), Andre Hollins (Minnesota), Rodney Hood (Duke), Josh Huestis (Stanford), Cory Jefferson (Baylor), Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati), Alex Kirk (New Mexico), Devyn Marble (Iowa), Doug McDermott (Creighton), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Chasson Randle (Stanford), Will Sheehey (Indiana), Aaron White (Iowa), Kendall Williams (New Mexico).

3. The list will be cut down to 12. Everyone could use making the team to better themselves. But Hood could use it more than anyone else after sitting out last season as a transfer from Mississippi State. Hood needs game action before he starts to star for Duke. Fair, Grant, Hairston, Jefferson, McDermott and Payne all are trying out for the team after making the decision to return to school. The fact that two players from Indiana, Duke, Notre Dame, New Mexico and Iowa are on the first list is a sign about these three teams' future next season. Kirk and Grant have a chance to be headline players next season. So too, does White. The one player who could benefit as much as anyone is Ferrell, who will have to be even more of a playmaker next season without Victor Oladipo on his wing.
Luke Hancock was the biggest story of the Final Four, and not just because he played outside of his cranium in the most important moments of Louisville's title run. The story of Hancock's father, who was seriously ailing with an undisclosed illness but made the trip to see his son play the biggest and best games of his life, was the most emotionally resonant arc of the postseason.

Now Hancock and teammate Stephen Van Treese doing a little offseason health prevention charity work -- for the benefit of cancer research and the American Cancer Society, specifically -- in one of the simplest ways possible: shaving.

Per the Relay for Life page set up here, you can donate to Hancock, Van Treese and the rest of the Cardinals in advance of Wednesday afternoon's "Shave For Life" event, which will begin at 5 p.m. ET, following guard Russ Smith's announcement on his NBA decision. Kentucky's WAVE TV caught up with Hancock and got visual of the beard pre-shearing, which Hancock has been growing out all April. I must say, it is looking rather ... questionable. Then again, as someone who convinces himself his neck beard looks good just so he can be really lazy about shaving, I wouldn't dare criticize.

(Hat tip: Le /r/CollegeBasketball)
ATLANTA -- The song wasn't good enough, not this time.

The spliced moments of highlight dunks and emotional victories set to the soppy strains of Luther Vandross seemed almost trite in comparison to what was unfolding in real time Monday night at the Georgia Dome.

There, behind the Louisville bench, sat the Hancock family -- father Bill, mother Van, brothers Will, Matt, Robert and Stephen, plus sister Melissa. Their son and brother Luke had just been named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, the first bench player in the history of the NCAA tournament to get the award.

Bill is gravely ill but he willed himself to attend the Final Four despite a body that fought him every step of the way. Luke's first stop after Louisville topped Michigan 82-76 for its first national championship since 1986 was his father's embrace.

Not far from Luke and Bill was Peyton Siva, practically jumping over the media table to embrace his family. His dad, Peyton Sr., dressed in an airbrushed Kevin Ware tank top, was there celebrating and fist pumping.

Less than 10 years ago and lost in a haze of drugs, he wanted to kill himself, pulled back from the brink by his 13-year-old namesake.

In the middle of the court, on the makeshift trophy-presentation stage, gathered the extended Pitino family -- kids, in-laws, grandchildren, the whole gang. Front and center sat Rick Pitino, now a newly minted Hall of Famer, a Kentucky Derby horse owner and the first man to take two schools to a national title. Only three years ago, he was a punch line mired in an embarrassing scandal. His wife, Joanne, sat alongside him, their legs dangling over the edge like little kids while everyone made Louisville L's with their fingers.

On Wednesday, the same day Pitino got the call from the Hall, the couple celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary, 37 years of loss and triumph, strength and struggle.

And at one end of the court, there was Ware on his crutches, the net lowered to accommodate him and his crutches, making the final snip on the only nets Louisville has cut all season.

There are shining moments that have the shelf life of a video, and there are life moments that never die, shared by a group of players thrown together to form a team but that, if they're lucky, become something more.

"These are my brothers," Siva said. "My brothers."

College basketball's latest national champion is a collection of incredulous moments. One emotional journey is more improbable than the next, all steered by a man whose life journey is perhaps more halved by pain and joy than any other coach in the game.

For Dana O'Neil's full column, click here.