Issue March 12, 2012

InfraRed-colored glasses

The Cards change more than just their uniforms for post-season play

When last season ended, with little more than a whimper, U of L fans took solace in the fact that what they had just witnessed was a “bridge year.” Coach Pitino had packaged it that way all along, promising 2012 would be different.

Gone would be Preston Knowles, the conscience-free shooter who sparked so many magical comebacks, replaced with a recruiting class replete with multiple McDonald’s All-Americans and other can’t miss contributors. The squad of returnees would be older, wiser and in the case of Gorgui Dieng, 20 pounds bulkier.

Then things started to unravel.

Wayne Blackshear: out.

Mike Marra: out.

Rakeem Buckles: out.

Stephen Van Treese: out.

Add to that list a host of other high ankle sprains, concussions and flu-like symptoms and you have the 2012 Louisville Cardinals: a M.A.S.H. unit.

As Thomas Paine once said, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Well put, Mr. Paine, well put.

However, it is in these trying times that something became obvious about this edition of Cardinal roundballers: They would not go quietly.

With the glaring exception of a mail-it-in 30-point loss at Big East doormat Providence, this team exerted maximum effort all year. They had no choice. Scoring droughts were the norm. Defense was paramount. Control what you can, prepare for what you can’t.

But that’s life in the Big East, especially this season. Teams like South Florida, Cincinnati, Georgetown and Notre Dame would prefer to grind it out and have been more successful than ever with their slowdown brand of play. They prefer to keep games in the 60s. Or in the case of USF, the 50s. It’s tough to speed things up against such teams, and there have been slowdown teams aplenty on U of L’s schedule.

It’s been frustrating and, at times, difficult to watch.

If you were bored or sadistic enough over the past few weeks to check out the online message boards, you surely found extensive suggestions for Coach P on how to run his squad and for Tom Jurich on how to conduct his next coaching search.

There’s a reason they don’t let fans vote on substitution patterns, practice regimens or personnel decisions: We rarely know what the hell we’re talking about.

However, one thing cannot be argued this time of year: You survive and advance. It’s something this Cards squad is used to — they’ve been surviving all year.

So when the Cards packed their bags for the Big Apple last week, expectations were mixed. The optimists wanted a couple wins; the pessimists hoped to avoid embarrassment.

But once the Cards took the court in Manhattan’s storied Madison Square Garden, it was clear everything had changed, including the uniforms. Wearing some sort of new-fangled space suits, dubbed “InfraRED” by Adidas, the Cards not only looked like a whole different team, they played like one as well. ESPN’s Jay Bilas suggested the Cards resembled “a bunch of 6-foot-7 traffic cones.” A fair assessment, except I’ve never seen a traffic cone move like these guys.

The Cards who showed up in NYC were the ones we’d been waiting on all year. They were intense, unselfish, dominant.

Peyton Siva sloughed away a frustrating junior season to re-emerge as a top-tier point guard. He drove and dished. Picked and popped. Stole and slashed. Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith’s shooting woes became a thing of the past. Gorgui Dieng got pissed one night and didn’t miss a shot the next. Jared Swopshire grabbed a dozen boards against Marquette. Yeah, that Jared Swopshire, the delicate one. Chane Behanan was big. Russ Smith was Russ Smith.

When the celebration began after dispatching Cincinnati in the championship game, it was clear these guys had bought into the “Louisville First” mantra Coach Pitino presented at the season’s outset. They ran around like Jimmy V looking for guys to hug. Russ Smith wept. Internet reports suggest Kyle Kuric may have danced. Chane Behanan carried tournament MVP Peyton Siva on his shoulders like a kid at the zoo and delivered him to the podium to receive his award.

This Big East Championship win seems a bit sweeter than the first the Cards nabbed back in 2009. That was a team of superstars. They expected what they got. But this is a lunch-pail group. They appreciate it. They’ll build on it. Who knows, they might even get a chance to exact a little revenge in the Big Dance against Michigan State, whose Spartans knocked out the Cards the last time we entered the tournament as conference champs. They’re slated to meet in the Sweet 16 if everything holds to form. Just think about it for a minute. Can’t you see it? I can.