Mark Wiedmer: Louisville running away from NCAA challengers

Mark Wiedmer: Louisville running away from NCAA challengers

March 24th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - His team having been crushed by Louisville in the second round of the NCAA tournament Thursday night, North Carolina A&T coach Cy Alexander said of the colossal Cardinals, "I think they have, potentially, what it takes to win the national championship."

Having watched the Cardinals rout his Rams 82-56 in the tourney's third round Saturday night, Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy said, "They're special ... as well coached a team as I've ever played against. ... You can't simulate how they come at you, and come at you, and come at you."

Two games does not an NCAA champion make, of course. It takes six, which means Rick Pitino's 12th Louisville team is still four wins away from his first title at U of L and second overall.

But when it comes to the eye test, it's becoming increasingly difficult to imagine the Cards not cutting down the nets 15 days from today inside Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

It's not just that Louisville (31-5) has won its two NCAA games by an average of 28.5 points, though that alone is stunning given the close shaves experienced by fellow No. 1 seeds Kansas and Gonzaga in their tournament openers.

Since losing in five overtimes at Notre Dame on Feb. 9 in perhaps the most entertaining regular-season game of the year, Pitino's Piranhas have chewed up 12 straight opponents, winning 11 of those games by 12 or more points with an average victory margin of 19 points.

Said Colorado State senior forward Greg Smith after facing Louisville: "It's total chaos. Those guys are going so fast. They're flying around. It's hard to get used to the speed."

Said Eustachy: "We're shooting 55 percent at halftime and we're down 14. You look at the box score and you might think this game was close, but they win by 26. Their guards are 6-footers and they play about 6-10. They've got one loss in their last last 15 games, so they bring it every night."

Here's how completely they brought it against the Rams, who were the leading rebounding team in the country entering Rupp Arena -- which was dubbed "Russ Arena" after the Cards' Russ Smith exploded for 27 points against CSU to follow up his 23-point game against A&T:

Louisville out-rebounded Colorado State 29-24. Just as impressive, the Cards forced a Rams squad averaging 10 turnovers a night into 20 miscues.

Nor did this total domination on defense -- the Cards also ran away with 11 steals and held CSU to four assists -- slow the Louisville offense, which hit 56 percent of its field-goal tries, 56 percent of its 3-pointers and 83 percent of its free throws.

Talk about special.

It was all so delightful to the Cardinals Nation that it began doing the "Wave" throughout much of the second half inside its bitter rival Kentucky's home gym, though that might be understandable, given that Louisville's last national title came in 1986.

Not that the Cards' crowd is necessarily stuck in a time warp. Clearly looking to rub UK fans' noses in their unhappy season, they chanted "Robert Morris! Robert Morris!" at halftime, just in case the few Wildcats fans in attendance had somehow forgotten Tuesday's NIT loss.

And that loud, large and loyal crowd doesn't figure to do anything but expand inside Indianapolis's cavernous Lucas Oil Stadium during this week's Midwest Regional semifinals and final.

Next to UK's fans, Louisville's may travel better than any basketball bunch in the country, and Indy is less than two hours from Derby City.

So this could go on awhile. The players certainly expect it to continue.

"We are focused right now," forward Shane Behanan said. "There are only four games left."

There are only four games left if Louisville reaches the national championship game.

Perhaps to that end, Pitino said, "We can play much better."

If he's right, the only basketball team in the country capable of stopping Pitino's Piranhas may be the NBA champion Miami Heat.