Preparing For Madness

Will the Cards be able to repeat their 2013 NCAA championship appearance in Texas? Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune.

Will the Cards be able to repeat their 2013 NCAA championship appearance in Texas? Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune.

March is upon us. And so is the “Madness.” It’s a time when divine soothsayers like Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm will look at the BPI tea leaves and the sordid entrails of season-long records and decide who will be going to the big tournament. Meanwhile, fans around the country will fill out their own brackets, pretend to know things they clearly didn’t and ready themselves for an emotional rollercoaster.

Soon the conference championships will be played out and seedings will be finalized and over 60 teams nationwide get ready to book their flights to a plethora of distant geographical locales to try to claim it all. While some will be aspiring giant slayers – Davids with orange spherical slingshots – others will still be cannon fodder for said Goliaths, small stepping stones towards the Sweets, Elites, and Final.

But what’s strange this year is how, in our fair state, the two basketball behemoths of Kentucky and Louisville find themselves in such similar spots as last year.

For Louisville, one of the questions posed at the beginning of the season was “How would the Peyton Siva-shaped hole in the backcourt be filled?” As it turned out, quite well – with the mercurial Chris Jones, last season’s JUCO player of the year, and the ever-improving Terry Rozier slotting in and rotating seamlessly. While the likes of Kevin Ware had to sit out because of injury and the sad departure of Chane Behanan (who is hopefully finding personal peace at Colorado State) may have proved to be temporary distractions, on the whole, Louisville had a great season. Yes, the American Conference may have been derided early for the quality of its opposition, but how founded was this? When the Cardinals routed Connecticut on Saturday and bade farewell to their seniors, they did so by beating a ranked opponent. When they lost, and then avenged that same loss, to Cincinnati, that too was against a ranked opponent. Throw in SMU alongside a stern Memphis, and you have a conference filled not with tomato cans, but rather tough competition during a season where losses happened for a reason – namely that Louisville were not good enough at the time, and great wins were notched because Pitino’s men adapted and got better as the season progressed. Yes, they lost against the likes of UNC and the Wildcats, but that was early on. Compare the Cardinals at the beginning of the year to the end product, and the difference is night and day.

The real crown jewels of the season have been Montrezl Harrell and Russ Smith. Yes, Trez (as he’s affectionately known) has been busy moonlighting as the most aggressive dunker in college basketball this year, but what he’s really given Louisville is a heavy dollop of physicality and defense that could have proved a problem. The 6’8” North Carolina native has more than doubled his output in rebounds from last year, finishing the regular season with an average of 8.3 rebounds per game while also throwing in a good number of blocks for good measure as the year wore on. As for Smith, he’s in many people’s All-American lists for the second year running, and for good reason. Where once he was seen as the end product to Siva’s generalship at point guard, Smith, who rightly elected to stay for his senior year, has now become a creative font as much as a points machine. On Saturday against the Huskies Smith bagged 13 assists and was the fulcrum around which every offensive move centered. After the game, Pitino was adamant that Smith was pound for pound the best player in college basketball.

So going into the tournament, where does that leave Louisville? Well, whether or not they win the AAC tournament, they’ll be a team to feared. The Cardinals are a team with a spine that was, on the whole, kept intact from their title winning year, and has been bolstered by a their perennial smattering of talented and under-recruited freshman. If momentum is the key word, then they’ve got plenty of it coming into the tail end of a season as the defending champions. A lot of them have been there before, and the ones that haven’t have bought into what Pitino wants to give them: the best possible chance of reliving the halcyon days of last year in Atlanta.

If the Cardinals are in the best possible shape, then the same cannot be said of the Wildcats. To dwell too much on them would seem like fair and easy game if you’re of Louisville persuasion. While there’s no doubt that much of the negative press that’s piled on Calipari and his young charges has probably been a result of Calipari’s detractors in the media waiting for their first chance to draw knives, much has been warranted. If there was one thing that Big Blue Madness did, other than making Wildcat fans throughout the Commonwealth salivate and foam at the mouth, it was create a sense of expectation that could never possibly have been matched with a group of players so predominantly built up of freshman. Recruiting takes skill; so does drilling that talent into a cohesive unit. A diamond is only of value once it’s been cut right, and alas, this year Kentucky have proven to be nothing more than blunt rocks, steadily dulled by disheartening defeats. Is there time to turn it around and string a series of victories together to formulate a season of redemption, as opposed to despair? Of course. Is it likely? Well, not when you ask the players.

“We’ve got to get this thing going,” said Julius Randle after Kentucky got whipped by Florida on Saturday so easily that the Gators recorded the second-biggest losing margin in the Calipari era. “We don’t know what we’ve got to do, but we’ve got to get it going.” There is something tragic, forlorn and, on the whole, sad about the mutterings of one of Calipari’s All-American prodigal sons. What the “this” is that Randle is referring to, I’m not sure even he knows. Randle has been one of the best players this year, a straight-up top 5 NBA draft pick, but what about those around him? Sporadic displays of brilliance have been usurped by all-too-often illustrations of limited game plans and poor ball handling. Turnovers galore.

As March Madness descends on the Commonwealth and the nation at large, what kind of madness will run rampant through the blue and red halves of the city? The madness that’s fuelled by a frenzied joy and ecstasy as experienced last year when Pitino’s Cardinals hoisted the NCAA trophy above the heads? Or the madness that is propelled by anger, the same anger that soon spirals into almost irreconcilable disappointment? The same anger that came as a result of a loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT? Who knows? Whatever happens, though, it will be one heck of a ride.

Who To Follow on Twitter During March Madness:

@KentTaylorWave
Kent Taylor | Sports Director – WAVE-TV

@EricCrawford
Eric Crawford | Sports columnist for WDRB in Louisville.

@RickBozich
Rick Bozich | WDRB Sports journalist in Louisville.

@WHAS11Kent
Kent Spencer | Sports Anchor at WHAS

@FredCowgillWLKY
Fred Cowgill | Sports Director/Anchor at WLKY

@1CardsFan
Jonathan Blue | Chairman and Managing Director of Blue Equity, LLC

@CardChronicle
Mike Rutherford | Owner/author of CardChronicle.com and college basketball editor for SB Nation. Co-host of The Two Man Game on Louisville’s ESPN 680.

@CrumsRevenge
Mike Lindsay | Co-Founder of TheCrunchZone.com; Co-Host of The Crunch Zone Podcast; Part-Time ESPN680 Blabber Mouth

@UofLSheriff50
Mark Blankenbaker | Co-Founder of TheCrunchZone.com

@ASeaOfBlue
Glenn Logan | The University of Kentucky online community for SB Nation.

@KySportsRadio
Matt Jones | Founder of www.KentuckySportsradio.com

@TonyVanetti
Tony Vanetti | Rock jock from 10-2 on 95.7 qmf and afternoon underdog 3-530 on 790 wkrd; father and hubbie rest of the time.

@Mengus22
Mark Ennis | Co-host of The Two Man Game on ESPN 680 in Louisville, KY.

@ElleRaiser
Michael Paoloni | The Official Twitter Account of Elle Raiser

@HowieLindsey
Howie Lindsey | Covering the University of Louisville Cardinals for the Louisville SportsReport, Red and Blue Review TV Show.

@Drew_Deener
Drew Deener | Host of the Deener show and Vice President of ESPN 680 AM, TV Play-by-play voice of the Cards.

@JDemling
Jody Demling | Publisher of Cardinal Authority, a Scout.com site.

@UKCoachCalipari
John Calipari | UK Men’s Basketball Coach

@UKCoachMitchell
Matthew Mitchell | UK Women’s Basketball Coach

@CoachJeffWalz
Jeff Walz | UofL Women’s Basketball Coach

@BellarmineHoops
Scott Davenport | Bellarmine Basketball Coach

@ULFlyingCard
Nick Stover | UofL Director of Social Media and Engagement

@KKCards
Kenny Klein | Senior Associate Athletic Director for Media Relations/SID at the University of Louisville

@ESPNAndyKatz
Andy Katz | ESPN.com senior writer; ESPN’s CBB, NBA draft, NCAA reporter, host of ESPNU’s Katz Korner, The Experts, a backup host for Outside the Lines.

@YahooForde
Pat Forde | Sportswriter and co-host of Wetzel To Forde show on Yahoo! Sports Radio.

@ESPNLunardi
Joe Lundari | ESPN Bracketologist, Saint Joseph’s University administrator

@JeffBorzello
Jeff Borzello | College basketball and basketball recruiting columnist for CBSSports.com