(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Sports)
Don’t worry, this isn’t intended to be a super-long post on Louisville’s title game victory over Michigan on Monday night. With nearly 24 hours since the confetti fell and 23 hours and 59 minutes since Rick Pitino nearly had a heart attack on the way to shake John Beilein’s hand, I understand you’re probably tired of coverage of this game. I get that.
That’s also why I’m not going to waste anyone’s time regurgitating story lines you already know. You don’t need me to tell you that with the win, Pitino became the first head coach to lead two separate programs to a national title. You already know that Spike Albrecht became the first player yet to hit puberty to ever score 17 points in one half of a National Championship game. You’re plenty aware of Kevin Ware’s ‘One Shining Moment’ and that most of Michigan’s roster is more likely to collect NBA paychecks in six months than renew their scholarship papers.
Again, you don’t need me to tell you all that stuff.
Still, there is one angle which I feel like hasn’t been covered nearly enough in terms of this game. People have already spent plenty of time discussing how badly the sport of college basketball needed Monday night’s game; how the sport needed a fast-paced, fun-filled, high-scoring, referees-getting-out-of-the-way affair, in a year where college basketball was supposedly lacking great players and teams.
Still, we’re missing the bigger point here. To which I ask: Has anyone discussed how badly the sport of college basketball needed the 2013 Louisville Cardinals as well? Because I don’t think anybody has, which is why thankfully, I am here today.
Now don’t worry, this isn’t one of those super-preachy “Louisville did it the right way” columns, that so many writers like to spit out after a game like Monday night, only to see it spit back in their faces days or months later (ever heard of some guy named Manti Te’o? Or his lovely deceased aka not really real girlfriend Lenay Kukua?). No, no, Louisville was a flawed team, with good, but flawed humans filling out their roster. That’s not a knock on the Cardinals, and ultimately doesn’t make them any different than any other team in the sport. After all, these are college kids, and college kids do dumb stuff now and again.
No, this article isn’t about a team doing it the right way, as much as it is about a program taking an old-school approach to winning a title.
For the 2013 Louisville Cardinals, there was no microwavable, instantaneous success with this team, but instead, it was a unit which developed, struggled and grew together over a multi-year period. There was no title in year one, but instead baby-steps along the way; a first round NCAA Tournament loss, before a Final Four run, which ultimately led up to everything that happened Monday night. Louisville’s path to the title looked a lot more like one that would’ve happened in 2005, not 2013.
Now to anyone reading, please understand that this article isn’t intended to knock the way anyone else does things. Through the years teams like Kentucky, Ohio State and yes, even Duke have relied on freshmen, and if you know my work at all, you know that few on the national level has embraced the one-and-done culture quite like I have (heck, it was basically one year ago today which I wrote this column). As far as I’m concerned, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were two of the best things that ever happened to college basketball, and Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving weren’t so bad themselves. Simply put, I’m all for having as many talented players in college basketball as there can possibly be. If they just so happen to be ready for the pros after one year, more power to them.
At the same time, the thing that does get lost in the shuffle is that not everyone can be Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and not every team has the ability to not only recruit those type of players, but also cultivate their talents in a couple short months like John Calipari usually does.
And to further that point, I also think that at this time last year, there was a real fear that the deck was stacked against the rest of college basketball. That if you weren’t Kentucky or Duke or Carolina, and weren’t able to recruit those types of talents, you had no chance of ever winning another title again. Those guys were too good, too advanced and too well-coached, and if your opponent got three or four or five of them together, well, everyone else was playing for second place. If I’m being totally transparent here, it probably didn’t help that guys like me, wrote articles like this, to further that point.
Only that was then, and this is now, and the 2013 Louisville Cardinals certainly changed up the game a bit. They turned back the clock, went old-school on us, and proved that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Or in their case, win a National Championship.
Sure Louisville had a handful of McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster (Peyton Siva, Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear), but these were different McDonald’s All-Americans. These guys were flawed and needed seasoning. They were an inch too short or a step too slow, and ones who definitely weren’t the Kidd-Gilchrist-Irving-Durant types, ones who were ultimately NBA players moonlighting on college rosters.
Actually, they’re the opposite.
While I wrote about it extensively last week, it’s still worth repeating here: Most of the guys on Louisville’s roster were flawed players when they arrived on campus, who, to a large degree still have flaws even after winning a title. Russ Smith was a three-star recruit who not only shot too much in high school, but heck, still shoots too much. Final Four Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock was a low-post transfer from George Mason, who somehow morphed into a three-point gunner for the Cards. Behanan is still probably an inch or two too short, Gorgui Dieng is still a year or two away from reaching his full potential and even after four years, Peyton Siva still can’t be relied on to make an open jump shot.
Yet this entire group stuck around, developed their games and got good enough as a group to win a title Monday night. This might not have been a great collection of talent, but the 2013 Louisville Cardinals were a great team.
And more than anything, that’s what I’ll remember the 2013 Louisville Cardinals for: A great team that stuck around, worked together and ultimately achieved their goal of winning a title. There were no one-and-dones, no future lottery millionaires, no guys using college as a one-way pit-stop to get better, then get the heck out of town. That might work for a lot of kids at a lot of schools. None of those kids happened to play at Louisville. At least not this year anyway.
And to wrap this column up, I’ve got to ask: Isn’t that attitude almost a bit refreshing? In this instant gratification era, where every kid has been told how great they are since they were 12-years-old, isn’t it fun to see an old-school, hard-line coach mold a group of guys, and take them from decent, to good, to great in the process? And isn’t it great that they all stuck around? That none took the easy way out and transferred or left school before they were ready?
Furthermore, to bring this column full-circle, didn’t these Louisville Cardinals give the rest of college basketball hope? Didn’t they put every fan-base on notice that you don’t need a bunch of high school All-Americans to cut the nets down in March or April, but instead just the right kids, with a patient coach who knows how push the proper buttons at the perfect time?
I think these Louisville Cardinals proved exactly that, and as we get set to wrap up another season, it’s refreshing to know we didn’t crown just another champion. The 2013 Louisville Cardinals were a unique champion yes, one which will be remembered for winning a title on an old-school roster, filled with juniors and seniors.
Louisville was not only a worthy champion on Monday night.
They were one college basketball desperately needed.
(For more on the Louisville Cardinals and their 2013 title run, please click here)
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