What a big win Thursday night for the Louisville Cardinals over one of college basketball hottest teams!
The win was huge for several reasons - it sealed Louisville's first-ever C-USA regular-season title and the top seed in next week's conference tournament in Memphis - but the biggest reason just might be this. Now, hopefully, Louisville will get the type of respect they have earned and deserve around the nation.
You can say what you want about the Cardinals non-conference slate of opponents that was heavy with OVC contenders - and pretenders. You can also make light of their sterling 25-4 record. But we're talking about one of the most consistent college basketball teams this season. They've won 14 of their past 15 games. They've won six straight on the road. They beat Florida in Gainesville. Stanford in Maui. Swept Cincinnati and Maquette. And, of course, handled No. 18 Charlotte fairly easily last night. They overcame injuries all season and have handled the adversity like the champions they are.
The bottom line? All these guys do is win. They win low-scoring games, like they did at Memphis (53-44) and they've proven capable of winning shootouts, like last night's 94-82 victory over Charlotte. They can win with defense - and offense. And they appear ready to do the one thing they haven't since Pitino arrived four-years ago - win big in March.
Folks, Louisville is one of the elite teams in college basketball this year! Enjoy the ride and the next few weeks.
Larry O'Bannon deserves first team C-USA recognition this season.
The 6-4 senior has been the best and most consistent player for the league's top team all year. He hung 30 in a blowout win over Marquette in January and only got better from there. And his 33-point performance last night against Charlotte is one of the finest performances I've seen from a Cardinal - ever!
"He was brilliant in all phases of the game and it really is a Hollywood ending for a very special man," said Rick Pitino.
O'Bannon, who lead the team in scoring (15.5) during league play, was at his best in Louisville's more important conference games. While everyone will remember his two 30-point efforts, it would be unwise to forget his 18 point performance at Cincinnati, or the 21-points he poured in at UAB. And his 15-point, 7 rebound outing at Marquette helped Louisville escape with a narrow win.
CAN YOU BELIEVE PLAVICH?
Brendan Plavich is unreal.
His range is almost hard to believe, even after you see it first hand. Dick Vitale and his buddies at ESPN love to tout Duke's J.J. Reddick as America's finest shooter. But I can guarantee this - Louisville won't face a more capable or dangerous shooter this year.
And it's not like Louisville wasn't prepared for the 6-2 Plavich. Often, the Cardinals were in seemingly good position defensively to stop him Thursday night. But give Plavich credit. He made shots with hands in his face, he made them off-balance, and he made them from every angle and distance on the court.
MYLES PLAYING HIS BEST
Louisville's Ellis Myles is a warrior.
He's also playing the best basketball of his career right now. In Louisville last three games, the 6-7 senior has owned the boards, grabbing 37 in wins over Saint Louis, Memphis and Charlotte. And for good measure he almost added a triple-double to his resume in the title clash with the 49ers (10 points, 8 rebounds, 10 assists).
Even more impressive than the gritty board work has been his passing. Myles had 19 assists in those three games, too. His passing was a key factor in the second half comeback win over Memphis, and the 10 dimes he dropped on Charlotte broke the Niners backs.
"He's playing great basketball right now. He's handling, he's passing it and he's a big reason why we're winning right now," said Pitino. "If you take Ellis out of this lineup, you have last year's team and last year's team had no low-post presence. There were so many times tonight where we threw it inside and (Charlotte) came after Ellis late and he found Larry or Taquan. Ellis Myles, pound-for-pound and inch-for-inch, is playing great basketball."
If he can regain a consistent touch at the foul line - he was 0-5 last night - Louisville's going to be tough to beat this month. Heck, they already even when he's not hitting his freebies.
Taquan Dean has been sensational since learning he had mononucleosis two weeks ago. He's a tough kid - that's for sure - and his play has been critical in the Cardinals success down the stretch.
He had 15 against Saint Louis, 14 more against Memphis and then decided to erupt for 27 - in 22 minutes - last night against Charlotte. He's clicking from downtown, too, hitting 15 daggers in his last three outings.
Any other word than amazing for Dean's recent's efforts understate the situation. How he's playing at this high-level, in U of L's biggest games - without practicing regularly - is almost beyond comprehension.
--------------- The Madness - March that is - has begun!