Louisville‘s national title defense ended in the most unforeseen and painful way possible. Several weeks ago, there’s no way anyone could have predicted that in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, Louisville’s reign as champions would not only end, but it would end at the hands of their arch-rivals, the Kentucky Wildcats, in the Midwest Region semifinals in Indianapolis.
Yet for head coach Rick Pitino and his Cardinals, what looked like a promising chance to go back-to-back fell short, as Louisville blew an early double-digit lead and were sent home by a typically young Kentucky team that has found its legs at the right time. Senior Russ Smith finished his career by leading his team with 23 points in the loss and he went out firing, shooting 9-for-20 from the field.
Losing Smith will be a big challenge for Louisville, which finished 31-6 for the season but was eliminated by Kentucky for the second time in three years. When the Wildcats won the national championship in 2012, Kentucky defeated the Cardinals in the national semifinals, 69-61. Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis stood out in that game with 18 points and 14 rebounds, and as we’ve seen from Davis’ recent NBA work (40 points and 21 rebounds in one game), that was a Kentucky team led by a pretty special player.
Louisville was supposed to be the team with the special player in Friday’s game, as Smith was coming off a 42-point effort against Houston in the AAC tournament, and many thought that despite the Cardinals being a four-seed, Smith and company would come out of the Midwest and go to the Final Four. But as Smith perhaps wore down, so did the Cardinals. Smith shot just 15-for-39 (38 percent). He still averaged 17.3 points per game in the tournament, but his 23 weren’t enough on Friday.
Now, the Cardinals hit another crater in what has been a roller coaster three-season stretch. Twice eliminated from the NCAA tournament by Kentucky, and winning the whole thing the other year, Pitino must find a new go-to player for next season, while spending an entire offseason hearing from the blue side of the Commonwealth about his most recent loss. It doesn’t help, of course, that Pitino actually lost to John Calipari‘s Wildcats twice this season, having dropped the regular-season meeting, as well.
But after Friday, few people will probably remember the regular-season meeting, especially if Kentucky, now as hot as any team in the country, goes on to win its second national title in three years. Similar to the years in college football when Alabama and Auburn dominated the national championship, UK is three wins away from keeping the title in the Commonwealth for the third season in a row.
Meanwhile, Louisville can only think “what if,” and start preparing for trying to get back on top next season — a season that will see a major change as the Cardinals make their ACC debut. It’s likely that Pitino will do that successfully, but it’s going to take a while for the sting of Friday’s loss to go away.