Not many thought Louisville could ably sustain the loss of Mike Marra, who tore his ACL two games into the season in early November, but many underestimated and overlooked Rick Pitino’s Cardinals in a stacked Big East that featured the defending champion UConn Huskies, the fast charging Syracuse Orange and a slew of big name programs.
But Pitino knew that he had a talented roster filled with quality depth and that only time could bring a talented team together to gain each other’s trust and form a cohesive group. Pitino leaned on his experienced players, and Peyton Siva, Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith responded in kind by becoming the team leaders. As the season progressed, other supporting cogs emerged that would make this Louisville outfit a special one.
Sophomore Russ Smith ended up finishing second on the team in scoring. Out of seemingly nowhere, sophomore Giorgui Deng emerged as one of the top defensive big men in the country, averaging nine rebounds and over three blocks a game. Freshman Chane Behanan emerged as a big time glue guy for the Cards, averaging nine points and over seven boards per contest while shooting 51.3 percent from the field.
It took some growing pains for Louisville to emerge as, ultimately, the most successful Big East team of the 2011-2012 campaign. To end December and begin the new year, they dropped four of five, including a 90-59 embarrassment against the lowly Providence Friars, who Pitino coached 25 years ago to the Final Four. After a 12-0 start, Louisville was off to a 1-3 start in Big East Conference play.
To end February and begin March, they lost three of four to fall to 22-9 and have their status as a legit tournament team in doubt. Louisville hasn’t lost since, winning eight in a row to win the Big East Tournament title and the NCAA West region behind extremely strong and stout defense. They allowed fewer than 70 points in all but one contest, giving up 71 in an easy win over Marquette in the Big East quarterfinals.
That same Marquette team fell short in the Sweet 16 to Florida, who ended up being Louisville’s Elite Eight opponent on Saturday afternoon in Phoenix. To get to the regional final, it took the team’s best defensive performance against an excellently coached Michigan State team. The Spartans just scored 18 first half points and shot 28.6 percent from the field as the Cardinals cruised to a 57-44 win. Behanen was sensational, scoring 15 points on 6-10 shooting to go with nine rebounds. Deng dominated inside, grabbing nine rebounds and blocking seven shots.
Against Florida, Louisville again had its growing pains. They trailed 41-33 at the half and 60-49 with just 10:12 left in the contest. Underclassmen Behanen and Russ Smith took control of the game leading the Cards to a 23-8 run to close out the game. Behanen scored the go-ahead bucket, two of his 17 points, with 1:08 left and Pitino and Louisville emerged with a 72-68 comeback triumph and an unlikely trip to New Orleans as the fourth seeded champions of the West region.
“What happens is, you can’t lose confidence,” Pitino said. “I kept telling our guys we’re going to the Final Four. Win the Big East tournament, we’re going to the Final Four. And they did.”
A coach who believed in his players the whole way through has been rewarded, and the way he built his club this season is without question the best coaching job anyone has done in the country this season. After losing to Providence by over 30, Pinito’s Cardinals are two wins away from a national championship.