I'm not big on trying to combine a whole lot of thoughts into one story while getting it to make sense (might be a problem). So, I decided just to list ten things to watch for from the Cards in the next few weeks. Whether good or bad, all will be factors in the squad's quest for national title #3. Without further adieu....
1- Human Dart Boards - The Cards have the proverbial target on their back being the #1 overall seed and ranked #1 before the final poll for the first time in the school's illustrious history. The Cards have never been great front-runners, however no one knows how well they'll fare as the top dog. History says the Cards play better under-the-radar and as an underdog. This time they are the hunted and will get the opposition's best shot because Louisville is supposed to win, they are the favorites. The teams they play can basically bring that "nothing to lose" attitude. The Cards need to be prepared to absorb the knock-out punches teams will try to throw.
2. Call the Dogs! - More specifically, the "wild dogs" otherwise known as guards Andre McGee, Preston Knowles and Jerry Smith. Their disruption of the other team's backcourt has been crucial in the current 10 game winning streak. They have made it nearly impossible to easily advance the ball across half court. When it's done, the opposition is tired and forced to rush their offense. The dogs make life a living hell for whomever is unfortunate enough to handle the ball. If they can continue this and help reach Coach Pitino's goal of 35 deflections a game, the Cards should be in good shape.
3. Streaky Shooting - In the Cards' 5 losses this year they have shot an abysmal 33.2%. In their 28 wins the Cards are shooting close to 50% from the field. This is attributed to both taking good, uncontested shots and setting up the press on a made basket. Pitino preaches to take less than 5 contested shots a game because when they are over that number, their shooting percentage plummets. Also, making baskets is the only way to set up the tenacious press which always rewards the Cards with easy buckets through turnovers and in turn causes the opposition to fatigue. It seems obvious, but if the Cards make shots and are able to set up the press - they are very tough to beat.
4. Jerry Smith's Raindrops - I think a lot of Card fans have been somewhat disappointed in the play of Mr. Smith this year. I don't know whether they expected him to average more points, drive more or what. My only problem is his lack of aggression with his shot. Jerry just needs to shoot more. In the current 10 game streak, Smith is shooting 41% from beyond the arch and averaging 1.7 3's a game (taking only 4). His back-to-back bombs against Nova were daggers and his "shooters roll" against the Cuse was a momentum changer. Louisville is 10-1 when he puts up double figures in points. To win 6 in a row, Raindrops must pour at the dance.
5. Good or Bad Edgar? - Which Edgar Sosa is going to show up for the Cards? It has only been two short years since the much-maligned Sosa dropped 30+ in only his second tournament game. The thing is, it would totally be against the Cardinal formula for him to attempt a repeat performance. Ever since the dagger against the Cats, Sosa has played well within himself and has kept the mistakes at a minimum (however, they do rear there ugly head at times). His demeanor and mood have been as good as ever lately and Sosa will need to maintain that attitude going onto Madness.
6. E5 & Decision Making - Earl Clark could be as talented as any one player to come through Freedom Hall in the last 25 years. Sometimes it just seems like he's going through the motions. However, this is the time of year where Clark has been known to turn it up a notch. We all saw him evolve into a beast last year during the postseason and if the last few games are any indication, he is ready for Round 2. For Louisville to win, Clark must concentrate on his decision making. That includes dribbling the ball before you moving the feet and not showing of NBA range treys. Clark must stay in or around the paint for his offensive benefit and rebounding purposes - that is where he pays the bills. Earl has said before in interviews that he gets up for big games and is more motivated as usual when the stakes are high. This is about as high as the stakes are going to get.
7. Foul Shooting - One of the more frustrating things a fan can deal with is when his/her team struggles from the line. It's free points! The Cards shoot 64% from the foul line, putting them in the bottom 10 of the country. This is most definitely the one particular thing that could come back and bite them. How many tourney games over history can you remember where free-throw shooting just shot the better team in the foot? The Cards might only have one title if it weren't for Milt Wagner's icewater foul shots in the final seconds of the 86 title game. Free throws are crucial come March. However, I hate comparing the Cards to arch-rival Memphis, but the Tigers made the final game with just about as bad of a percentage last year. The Cards need to get that percentage up around 70% before they (and we) can be comfortable at the charity stripe moving forward.
8. Wake Forest Irony - The only team that truly scares me out of the Midwest bracket is Wake Forest, who the Cards would face in the Sweet 16. At one point this season the Deacs were a popular national title pick (ask John Renshaw), now they are the lowest rated #4 seed - which is pretty much mind-boggling. The Cards and Deacs have history in the dance as Tim Duncan took out DeJuan Wheat in the 96 Sweet 16 ruining a possible Elite 8 match-up with UK on one of the most horrendous calls in basketball history. Also, Wake superstar and Naismith candidate Jeff Teague ironically has a brother Marquis who is likely to attend Louisville in 2011. The Deacs have 4 7-footers and a dynamic freshman in Al-Farouq Aminu, so they match-up well with the Cards. Remember, the Cards could get a little help from Cleveland St. The last time CSU made the the tourney was 1986 which coincidentally was the last time the Cards cut down the nets.
9. Mardo and TJ's Inside Presence - I think the Cards need their inside duo to score 20 points and grab 10 boards combined to be successful. Currently, they are averaging 17.5 and 7.6 boards. Mardo needs to demand the ball inside, use his strength and get to the line. Jennings' presence is felt more on the defensive end, but he has been known to crash the offensive boards and finish. Pitino has asked a lot of Samuels all year and Jennings just now is coming into his own. Both freshman big-men need to show how much they have matured over the course of the season.
10. 86 Comparisons - This might deserve it's own post, but there are many parallels between this year's team and the last national champion from Louisville. Both have freshman sensation bigs (Pervis, Samardo) both have veteran leaders (Milt Wagner, T-Will). Both were/are known as second half teams. Both even had talented power forwards (Billy Thompson, E5). I might be stretching it, but I can see how they correlate. One last attempt: The 1986 Cards won their last 17 games after a whipping from NC St. If the Cards complete the journey, they would have won 16 straight since the ND game. Not as hard....Right?
#10 might be a little much, but I'm always down for some paranormal-type stuff that helps the psyche going into a tournament where the Cards have as good of a shot to take it down as anyone. They were named the #1 overall seed not because of best record, toughest schedule, or RPI. They are held to that pedestal because they are currently the best team in the country. That will add a great deal of excitement, stress, confidence and fear for all Cardinal supporters as they hit the dance ranked #1 for the first time in the programs prestigious history.