Cards appear poised for deepest run since '86

Boasting an experienced and talented squad, fourth-ranked Louisville appears poised to make their deepest NCAA tournament run since 1986. Entering Friday's opening-round game against Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisville has won 18 of their last 19 games, and they've proven capable of winning close games - an important trait that could serve them well in the Big Dance.

Not since 1986, the last time Louisville won the NCAA title with a 72-69 win over the media-darling Duke Blue Devils, have the Cardinals entered the NCAA Tournament this hot.

Nineteen years ago, the Cardinals entered the tourney riding an 11-game win streak; they'll enter their first-round game this Friday against Louisiana-Lafayette winners of nine straight, and 18 of their last 19.

But the similarities between the two teams don't end there. Like Denny Crum's '86 team, Rick Pitino's current bunch won both their regular-season and conference tournament titles. And like Crum's last great team, these Cardinals beat Memphis to earn an automatic bid to the Big Dance.

Perhaps more important, this group, like the '86 champions, also has a toughness that stems from its experience. That year, Crum could count on a veteran team - they started three seniors - to provide the difference in close games. This season, Pitino has the same luxury, with two seniors (Ellis Myles and Larry O'Bannon) and two juniors (Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean) among his top five.

That experience has helped Louisville win close games. In games decided by eight points or less this season, the Cardinals are 9-3. But, here's one thing to keep in mind, the Cardinals haven't dropped a close one since a three-point loss at Houston January 5. Since then, Louisville has made all the right moves late to pull out the toughest games.

"We're capable of staying with anyone in the country," Pitino said. "That's because we play it close and we can win close ballgames."

And while Louisville has enjoyed solid success in the NCAA's since that magical ride Billy Thompson, Milt Wagner and Pervis Ellison took Cardinal fans on nearly 20 years ago, the Cardinals haven't crashed the Final Four since.

Larry O'Bannon and the Louisville Cardinals
hope to cut more nets down in Saint Louis
next month.

Sure, there have been some memorable moments and noteworthy achievments. The Cardinals were a regular in the Sweet 16 until the late 1990's. Crum rode Ellison and a cast of talented stars like Herbert Crook and LaBradford Smith to the regional semifinals in 1988 and 1989. And there was a stretch in the mid '90's that also saw Louisville competing during the tournament's second weekend. The Cardinals reached the Round of 16 in 1993, 1994, 1996 and finished one game short of the Final Four in 1997 before falling to a talented North Carolina team on the shoulders of one Dejuan Wheat.

But since Wheat's graduation following that Elite 8 finish in '97, the Cardinals haven't enjoyed the type of post-season success they'd become accustomed. They missed the tournament altogether in 1998 and 2001. Crum's teams - led by Nate Johnson and Tony Williams - flamed out in the first round in 1999 and 2000 against Creighton and Gonzaga.

And that's why Pitino entered the picture after Crum stepped down following a 12-19 season in 2001. Pitino, a master program rebuilder who took both Providence and Kentucky to Final Four's, was hired to return Louisville to college basketball's ultimate venue - the Final Four.

After just missing an invitation his first season, the Cardinals will make their third straight appearance in the Big Dance when they play Louisiana-Lafayette this Friday in Nashville. And while the Cardinals haven't advanced past the second round since Pitino took over for Crum four years ago - primarily because of injuries to Ellis Myles and Taquan Dean - Louisville appears poised for a deep tournament run this time around.

"This has been a fascinating season," Pitino said. "Our injury situation has been well documented how bad it's been. But we've still been able to overcome it and win."

The pieces are in place now to win - and advance. The Cardinals are one of the most dangerous shooting clubs in the nation. They've got a solid presence they didn't have last season in the middle in Myles, and Francisco Garcia is talented enough to put the Cardinals on his back and lead them to Saint Louis. Combine that with C-USA tournament MVP Taquan Dean, and red-hot Larry O'Bannon on the perimeter and the Cardinals are viewed as one of the Albuequerque brackets favorites despite their number four seeding.

But if the Cardinals are to make a charge for Saint Louis, they'll have to rely on their defense - particularly with explosive offensive teams like Washington, Wake Forest, and Gonzaga hanging around. Fortunately for Pitino, this is his best defensive team at Louisville, even though its not a typical Pitino squad defensively.

"We're not a great man team, and we're not a great zone team," Pitino said. "We're a great changing defensive team. The more we change the more effective our defense becomes."

The Cardinals have proven they can stop opponents when they most need to do so. They stopped Cincinnati cold on the road during the second half after trailing by 16 in the first to win 69-66. They turned up the heat at Marquette in the last five minutes, holding the Eagles scoreless down the stretch to erase an 11 point deficit and pull out a hard fought win. And they held Memphis to 19 percent shooting to knock off the Tigers on the road after trailing by nine with 10 minutes to play.

Seemingly possessing the ingredients to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1986, the Cardinals have a much more immediate task at hand - Louisiana-Lafayette. Now, Pitino and the Cardinals are focused on taking things one step at a time - and they hope the journey doesn't end until they reach Saint Louis.

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