The Connecticut Huskies were crowned as the 2014 Men’s NCAA Champions on Monday. Wow! That still sounds really weird to say. Head coach, Kevin Ollie, did an amazing coaching job and resurrected his team to go on one of the biggest turnarounds in history. Way back on March 8, the Huskies invaded the KFC Yum Center on Louisville’s senior night looking for an upset. Somebody forgot to get that memo to Russ Smith and company. The Cards went on to humiliate the Huskies, 81-48, behind 13 assists from Smith. Montrezl Harrell and Luke Hancock paced the Cards with 20 and 16 points respectively.
Louisville’s defense stifled Shabazz Napier all night, limiting him to just nine points (2-for-13 shooting) with one assists and six turnovers. Demoralizing such a great player like Napier must have hit home with the senior and jump started his turnaround in play. So, I guess Kentucky fans can be even more irate with Card Nation and I guess Card Nation can stick their out their proverbial tongues to Big Blue Nation and say collectively, “Na-na-nuh-boo-boo, stick your head in…” well, you understand.
Now that the season is complete, here are my final grades for the 2013-2014 Cardinals:
Offense – (B+)
Louisville was one of the best offenses in the country and finished No.12, scoring 81 points per game. The Cards were a complete offense and ranked in the top 20 nationally in four other offensive categories. Rick Pitino’s high powered offense ranked No.12 in assists (568), No.20 in free throws attempted (920), No.19 in offensive rebounds per game (13.5) and No.1 in scoring margin (19.9).
Their field goal % (47.1), 3-point field goal % (36.8), and free throws made (608) ranked 37th, 46th and 70th nationally and keeps them from being graded higher.
Defense – (A+)
Pitino is known as a master at teaching some of the best pressure and trapping defense in all of basketball and the Cards once again proved that they are arguably the best in the country. The swarming up tempo defense helped Louisville lead the country in turnover margin at +6.7 and also finish second nationally in steals (370) and steals per game (10). If teams did get the ball over half court, it didn’t get much easier. The Cards were very good in their half court sets too, ranking No.20 in field goal % defense (39.6) and No.2 in 3-point % defense (28.6). For overall scoring defense, they ranked 15th , allowing only 61.1 points per contest.
Free Throws – (F)
There’s no sugar-coating this one. Louisville hit only 608 out of the 920 attempted and finished a putrid, 290 out of 345 total teams at 66.1% from the “what used to be known as the charity stripe”. They became notorious for missing from the foul line during the biggest moments and of course the misses piled up against Kentucky in the Sweet 16 game and ultimately led to their demise.
Overall – (B)
The Cards went 29-5 in the regular season and AAC tournament combined which is phenomenal but failed to close out, what should have been wins against Memphis twice, Cincinnati and obviously Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Against the No.80 strength of schedule, they took care of business as expected and didn’t lose a single game outside of the RPI top 50.
Had they been able to close out and finish off the hated Wildcats in Indianapolis, it may very well have been enough of an a emotional booster to propel them into the Final Four and given them a real chance at repeating as national champs. Losing hurts any time but losing to your hated rival is a kick in the teeth. With a preseason No.3 ranking, a team full of veterans, a Player of the Year candidate and returning Final Four MOP along with a consensus top-10 recruiting class, expectations were off the charts.
The Cardinals were realistically looked at as a national championship favorite before the season and going into the tournament and, though, there were some major disappointments, distractions and defections (Chane Behanan & Kevin Ware) Louisville still had enough talent and experience to make a deep run. Winning ugly versus Manhattan and Saint Louis were bad tastes injected into the fans mouths but tolerable. Losing to Kentucky was gut-wrenching.
Overall it was a good season with lots of great moments and fun, but ultimately the Cards had too many opportunities to make it a great season, come up short like many of their free throws. Finishing with a 31-6 record overall, the Cards have notched at least 30 wins in each of the last three seasons and in four of the last six.
With that said, the future looks very bright with some key players returning and quite possibly the best recruiting class ever under Rick Pitino. Should Montrezl Harrell return for his junior season, the Cards will likely be ranked somewhere in or close to the top 10 in the preseason and be a legitimate Final Four contender.