Although the Louisville Cardinals were expected to again be a contender this season, the loss of guard Peyton Siva and shot-blocker supreme Gorgui Dieng appeared as if they could halt a potential repeat as National Champions. However, Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell have more than fit the bill for those roles for this year’s edition of the team.
Smith continued his ascension through the ranks of the nation’s senior guard class and Harrell continued his dominant post presence in the first ever American Athletic Conference Tournament championship, powering the Cardinals to a 71-61 win in the final over Connecticut.
Perhaps UConn (26-8) had exhausted every possible emotion in last night’s heart-stopping finish against Cincinnati. The Huskies came within an eyelash of losing in semifinal but were bailed out a missed layup by the Bearcats’ Sean Kilpatrick. Or perhaps UConn was no match for the powerful match-up press defense of the Cardinals (29-5), which has become the signature of Rick Pitino during his time at Louisville. The win gives Pitino, who might be the best postseason coach of the past two decades, the 12th conference tournament title of his career.
The Cardinals were 9-1 in their last 10 games, including an 81-48 drubbing of the Huskies’ in the regular season finale. Harrell was a monster in the final, recording 22 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. A performance like that may well be the springboard for entry into the upcoming NBA Draft, as the sophomore appears to be flying up the draft chart.
Fresh off a career-high 42 points against Houston on Friday, Smith added 19 points and five steals and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
One has to wonder if the #5 ranked Cardinals (29-5) will face the scrutiny of the NCAA tournament selection committee, as they’re strength of schedule heading into play tonight was slotted at 100. Surprisingly, updates have them currently pegged as a potential 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Regardless, what can’t be ignored is their dominance over the past few weeks, particularly in the American tournament, where their average margin of victory in the three games was 33.3 ppg. Their overall resume might not quite be on par to grab a No. 1 seed but they will be a huge threat no matter where they land.