Issue March 31, 2009

And they’re out

The Cards’ magnificent season is over

INDIANAPOLIS — Kerthunk! Splat! Thud! 

This is the way the season ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.

Thirty-one Ws. Six losses. That’s a campaign to savor.

But this last stunner of a defeat feels like a karate kick to the solar plexus.

The question is whether we should have seen this coming, a loss to a team the Cardinal Nation considered inferior, preventing U of L from advancing to the Final Four as the NCAA’s top-seeded squad. A numbing defeat to a lower-seeded team that was plundered in its conference tourney, was nip-and-tuck to beat woeful IU late in the season, and lost at home to perennial nonentity Northwestern for heavens’ sakes.

Know this: Tom Izzo wins these games. His street-bully tough Michigan State Spartans had Louisville reeling and measured the entire tilt. Louisville flinched, didn’t fight back and lost going away, 64-52.

The Spartans wanted to play in the national semis in their home state. They made it happen in front of a mostly red 36,084 at Lucas Oil Stadium, the largest regional crowd in tournament history.

When MSU plays Saturday, a hundred miles from home, they hope to do better than the Cards did Sunday under similar circumstances.

Hindsight provides clues that this over-achieving Cardinal club, prone to mishap, was destined to fall short of the ultimate prize.

The Spartans gained significant confidence in the first half when center Goran Suton hit 7 of 10 from the field, the majority from the top of the key. That’s been an open spot in U of L’s zone that savvy foes have found ripe for exploitation.

Remember the comeuppance at home to UConn? Jeff Adrien was 7 of 12 from that same spot in the Huskies’ 17-point romp.

Suton didn’t can one from the field in the second half. No matter, the Cards were already toast.

With 15:20 left, Terrence Williams made the kind of play that has been spurring the Cards to runs that demoralize even steely foes. He blocked a Suton trey from the corner with U of L up 34-32. The unusual result: U of L didn’t capitalize.

Michigan State proceeded to outscore the Cardinals by five, forcing The Rick to call a timeout at 12:49, down 36-41.

Even the most stalwart teams crack on occasion, and Louisville was done. Defeat was inevitable. You could see it in their eyes. The score moved inexorably from 36-41 to 40-49 to 43-55.

The specter of the 33-point debacle at Notre Dame returned. Nothing to worry about, the pundits said, a throwaway game. The Irish needed it really bad and Louisville just got caught in a buzzsaw.

But that meltdown in South Bend was indeed telling. It forewarned that the Cards could be broken, that as magnificently as they played this year most of the time, there could be a moment when they might crack. National championship teams don’t lose by 33 in February. Not to NIT-caliber squads.

It certainly isn’t time to denigrate the Cardinals. But the NCAA is a reality show. U of L is off the island.

The transformation of T-Will notwithstanding, U of L didn’t have a player who could take over any game at any time. For all his magnificent talents, Earl Clark hasn’t yet learned that the space he creates by his mere presence and possession of the ball opens up others for easy deuces. Ditto Samardo Samuels. Fifty-five percent free throw shooting doesn’t keep you in tight games when every possession counts. The team simply wasn’t consistent, Ellis-Myles tough.

Enough. I love the Cardinals. I love this year’s Cardinals. So should every Louisville fan. Of them, all things considered, it can be said proudly they went farther than could be expected. This team was not merely a good but a great edition in the school’s elite tradition.

So be it that they weren’t transcendent.

At the end of the regular season, U of L stood alone atop the best conference in the history of college basketball. These guys trumped that by winning the league’s tournament championship. They rose to the top of the polls for the first time in school history.

And, when the pain from Sunday subsides, as it surely will, the players and fans should be delighted for a damn fine, most memorable and successful season.

c d kaplan’s sports blog can be found at score.leoweekly.com