What A Difference A Shot Makes

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Losses like the heartbreaker Louisville suffered at Memphis last Saturday are the ones you’re supposed to write off as being the product of a “rivalry game” or a “tough road environment” late in the season. The events of the subsequent 48 hours after that loss made this even more tempting to do, as nine teams ranked in the top 20 (and one ranked No. 22) all fell over the weekend.

Still, there’s a sting about this loss that I’ve been unable to shake in the succeeding few days. It might be the fact that the way the game played out was so similar to the first meeting between the teams, which took place nearly two months ago. A corner was supposed to have been turned since then.

Bigger than that, I think, is that this at least temporarily disproved the belief (or hope) that what happened in Cincinnati two Saturdays ago would keep something like the final 4:22 in Memphis from happening again.

Russ Smith’s game-winner was supposed to bestow confidence throughout the team when big moments came. It was supposed to spawn a killer instinct that had been noticeably absent for the first three months of the season. Instead, an 8-point lead inside the FedEx Forum turned into a 6-point loss before anyone could really get a handle on what was going on.

There still isn’t a team in the country that I don’t think Louisville could beat at least three or four times out of 10, and that’s more than enough reason to be excited about the coming weeks. Still, it’s pretty clear that another run of at least four games in the big dance is going to require more fine-tuning and understanding of roles than I think any of us thought would be needed at this point in the season. I have no idea whether or not this will be accomplished, but the week and a half ought to provide a pretty clear indication before the madness of March takes full swing.

Even late in a season, it’s crazy how much one shot changes the entire perspective or narrative of a team.

If Russ Smith misses that high-arcing jumper against Cincinnati inside Fifth Third Arena, Louisville is a group of chokers who can’t finish down the stretch and is 0-6 against ranked teams. On the flip side, if Luke Hancock’s deep three against Memphis that went halfway through the net stays down, then I think UofL rolls to a win and is being hailed as a top-flight national title contender that is “hitting its stride at the right time once again.”

UofL is just a couple of shots in one direction or the other from being right in the thick of the title hunt, or being a squad that will be lucky to make the second weekend of the big dance. That’s both exciting and worrisome.

I really and truly believe that this weekend and the succeeding week will provide the proverbial “moment” (or moments) for this group. Now I’m not saying that they need to beat UConn by 30 to prove their worth to the rest of the country. I’m just saying that this is the time where everyone needs to understand what their role is and fully buy into it. If it doesn’t happen this weekend, then I don’t see it happening in Memphis, and I really don’t see it happening anytime after that.

But that’s what March is all about.

In no other postseason in this country is there at least one team from every state represented. In no other postseason do all of those teams get the right to end their campaign by playing until they lose. In no other postseason is the sport’s top prize theoretically obtainable for every team involved. In no other postseason can you right the wrongs of the past four months with a solid three-week stretch of basketball.

Sure, the regular season is slightly less exciting than it would be if only four or eight teams made the tournament, and sure, there are plenty of squads who probably haven’t earned the right to pay for anything of any real consequence, but I think just about everyone agrees that the good far outweighs the bad here. Making sure that every team that deserves a chance to prove itself – even if that process results in some unworthy teams getting that same shot – gets that moment is so much better than any alternative that doesn’t allow for the same opportunity.

It’d be pretty easy for the veterans on this Louisville team to rest on the laurels of their national championship and back-to-back Final Fours and Big East championships. It’d be equally easy for the newcomers to take on the ever-enticing “wait ’til next year when I’m able to do more” mindset. What’s more difficult is to fully accept the moment at hand and make a real, concerted run at history. If that’s going to happen, it needs to start now.