Rounding Up The Cardinals

These notes brought to you by the hands of a man whose brain has refused to return fully from the bliss of Memorial Day weekend. 

Fare thee well, AAC

The Louisville baseball team’s participation in the American Athletic Conference Tournament last weekend in Clearwater, Fla. marked the last league competition for UofL as a member of the AAC. The end of a 10-month era.

While most Cardinal fans have spent the year complaining about or taking shots at the AAC, I’m choosing to remember the good times. Like winning the three games in the men’s basketball tournament by a combined 100 points, or those times we beat Memphis in stuff…or how big and patriotic the league’s logos looked on the Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium turf.

In all seriousness, the AAC gave Louisville a home for its year in Purgatory, and it didn’t have to. For that, I suppose, we should be forever grateful. Now let us never speak of this again.

Regional hosts, collision course with Kentucky

Hopping on the Louisville baseball bandwagon in early May and riding it until whenever the fun stops in June has become something of a tradition in the city ever since Dan McDonnell took over (and completely reinvented) the program in 2007.

The strength of the tradition will be on full display inside Jim Patterson Stadium again this weekend, as the Cardinals will be hosting an NCAA Tournament regional for the second straight season and for the fifth time in eight years. Not bad for a program that had never even won a game in the big dance before McDonnell arrived on campus.

The second seed in Louisville’s region? The Kentucky Wildcats, of course. The “Bat Cats” are one of 10 SEC teams to make the field of 64 this year, a college baseball record.

For all the deserved chest-thumping that UofL fans have done over their successful 2013-14 sports season, there’s no question that the worm in their apple has been the Cards’ lack of success against Kentucky in major sports. The baseball team itself was swept by UK in the regular season, dropping two games by a combined score of 12-5.

The start of Louisville’s road back to Omaha was always going to attract its fair share of eyes, but the fact that the team from up I-64 is standing in UofL’s way will only add to the intrigue at The Patt this weekend. A trip to the super regionals is the main prize, sure, but rectifying at least some of the program’s failures against its archrival this season would also be nice.

Russ shines at mini-combine

While most NBA Draft experts still have him pegged as a late second-round pick at best, Russ Smith has done all he can so far this Spring to prove to NBA coaches and executives that he’s worthy of their first-round selection.

The most recent example is Smith’s performance at the Los Angeles Clippers’ mini-combine last week, where he was one of 44 prospects invited to perform in front of representatives for all 30 teams.

Russ’ main focus heading into the day was to prove to the scouts that he is capable of playing the point guard position at the next level, and he succeeded, getting into the lane at will and finishing his team’s exhibition game with 10 assists. The performance was so impressive that it left Mike Schmitz of the popular website DraftExpress.com referring to Smith as the “best player” at the min-combine and “one of the most underrated players in the draft.”

This showing comes on the heels of Smith’s impressive work at the NBA pre-draft combine in Chicago, where he impressed scouts with his ability to shoot off the dribble and with his improved accuracy from behind the three-point line. Russ now has less than a month to wow the powers that be in the league, as the 2014 draft will commence on June 26.

Gorgui earns NBA honor

As far as the guys who are already at the next level are concerned, Gorgui Dieng picked up a major honor last week when he was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie Second Team. This honor comes despite the fact that Dieng played hardly any meaningful minutes before the final seven weeks of the season. Had he seen major minutes from the October through April, then who knows how productive he could have  been.

Dieng finished his rookie season in Minnesota with modest averages of 4.8 points and 5.0 rebounds, but exploded at the end of the season, recording nine double-doubles in the Timberwolves’ final 18 games. Dieng finished sixth in last month’s voting for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.

Petrino lands two huge transfers

The primary concern for antsy UofL football fans during the first few months of the second Bobby Petrino era has been recruiting. While the Cards haven’t landed any five star freshmen-to-be yet, they’ve done the fan base one better by hauling in a handful of transfers who have already proven themselves worthy of playing the sport at its highest level.

The latest defectors to sign with Petrino are Shaq Wiggins and JaQuay Williams, a pair of transfers from the world of SEC football who were four star prospects in another lifetime.

Wiggins was a highly sought-after defensive back who started eight games at Georgia under new Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. He reportedly transferred from UGA after new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt required some different techniques with which Wiggins was uncomfortable. Williams was also a much-lauded prospect out of high school. He originally signed with Auburn in 2012, then attended prep school and signed with Texas A&M in 2013. He managed to see the field as a freshman for the Aggies, catching four passes for 72 yards and a touchdown.

UofL will be losing key players in both the secondary and at the wide receiver position after this season, making the signings a crucial play on the road to success in 2015.