With an incredibly optimistic outlook for the 2012-13 collegiate season, the great state of Kentucky has all but etched itself in stone as THE basketball state in the country. Though, its neighbor across the bridge makes a strong argument in favor of itself, too.
The University of Louisville, Indiana and Kentucky all rank pre-season in the top 10, with “Sporting News” and “Bleacher Report” hoisting IU as the preseason cream of the Division I basketball crop, while last year’s No. 1, UK, has taken a slight step back, ranking around No. 3 or 4 according to a few polls and analysts.
UofL has earned a strong No. 2 position in most polls and columnists’ picks, save Dick Vitale’s. On Oct. 3, Vitale proposed the top team in the nation would indeed be the Louisville Cardinals – my alma mater, hometown university, the institution my father, born into a die-hard UK family, raised me to love more than anything, while despising UK.
I’ve followed the Cardinals through thick and thin, first coming to know basketball and the University of Louisville while watching a struggling Denny Crum squad lose in the NIT. As I’ve grown older, I’ve witnessed a Rick Pitino team filled with exceptional coaching and talent often exceeding expectations only to fall once the rest of the world realizes the team’s capabilities.
2011, however, was somewhat unique for the Cards. UofL over-achieved in the finest sense of the term, surpassing any and everyone’s predictions. Being a loyal fan, I filled my NCAA tournament bracket with a culminating UofL championship, and while I laughed inside at the thought I’d pay miserably with several X-marks on my bracket sheet, Louisville actually held me at the top of the March Madness contests; until, of course, David met Goliath in the semi-finals.
It pained me to accept it, but UK had a team of pros, including the No. 1 NBA Draft pick, and no one could come close to beating them in the 2011-12 season – except Louisville, who showed a much better fight than Kansas did in the NCAA Finals.
Regardless, of the outcome, the point is, from what I’ve observed since childhood is a UofL team built and broken on expectations. When the buzz is low, Louisville’s performance is high. Yet, when the team’s forecast is bright, suddenly a storm of injuries and/or weak mental toughness clouds the Cards’ ability to conserve a top national ranking.
I’ve never been able to understand the trend. It’s as if the Cards are much more comfortable fighting to prove themselves, clawing to the top against all odds. But, once victory’s achieved, a sudden downward spiral ensues. A prime example is the 2003-04 season, when the Cards landed a Top 5 ranking, before slowly descending the polls and sealing their fate with a first round loss in the NCAA tournament. Just as heart-breaking, in 2011 the Cards pulled off the unlikely, making it to the Big East Championship, where they lost to the 2011 NCAA Tournament Champion UCONN. After all of the battling in the conference tournament, Louisville took a first round exit during March Madness, falling to 13th-seed Morehead State.
Now, UofL faces the challenge of sustaining a Top 3 poll position and fulfilling the boisterous Vitale’s prophecy of an NCAA championship trophy in 2013. It’s a challenge I’m somewhat nervous about based on the Cards’ past inconsistencies. An obvious key to breaking the cycle will be maintaining the team’s health, which always seems to dwindle in bulk at some unexpected turn of the season. Mike Marra suffered the inevitable in preseason by tearing his ACL yet again. Let’s hope it’s no omen of further ailments to come.
But, should the Cards stay healthy, there’s still concern whether the team will continue to show up aggressive against weaker opponents and ensure every game counts, even when you’d expect an easy stroll (i.e. Samford or Northen Iowa).
As Vitale notes in his preseason prediction, what UofL has on its side is experience, up-and-coming standouts in Luke Hancock and Wayne Blackshear, along with a developing dominating post presence with Chane Behanan and Gorgui Dieng. And, let’s not forget the future Hall of Fame coach who somehow manages to turn any group of misfits into a national title contender.
I know the expectations are higher than any UofL’s experienced in years, perhaps ever. But for once, let’s see Louisville truly rise above the pressure.
Please Cardinals, whatever it is that keeps you from performing at your best when everyone assumes you should, learn from it and fix it.
Take each game one game at a time; before you know it you’ll be back where you ended last year. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll meet Vitale, mine and the rest of the UofL faithful’s soaring expectations, with the final shining moment in Atlanta, claiming your stake as the best of the best in, undoubtedly what’s become, the greatest basketball state in all the U.S.