---- — Selection Sunday has passed, the brackets are out, and this weekend millions of Americans will drop what they’re doing to spend hours upon hours watching college basketball.
A lot of teams have a shot to go all the way, and Florida, Wichita State and Arizona in particular all look like strong teams with few weaknesses; but if you want to put your money on the hottest team in the tournament, look no further than the Louisville Cardinals.
Considering that the Cardinals are the defending National Champions and that they’ve returned most of their roster from last year’s championship team, it’s somewhat surprising how far under the radar the Cardinals have flown this year. It’s true they did lose to the first four-ranked teams they played this year, but since the start of February, the Cardinals have gone 12-1, and most of those games haven’t even been close.
Just this past week, Louisville beat No. 18 Southern Methodist 84-71, crushed No. 19 UConn 81-48 and then annihilated Rutgers 92-31 in the worst conference tournament drubbing in over 20 years. The Cardinals then whacked Houston 94-65 in the American semifinals, and on Saturday night they beat UConn again 71-61 in a game that really wasn’t all that close to win the inaugural American Conference championship.
Beside their previous tournament experience, Louisville is also a balanced team that can beat you in a variety of ways. Russ Smith is averaging 18.3 points per game and is easily one of the best guards in the country; Montrezl Harrell is an NBA prospect and a force on the boards, averaging 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game; Chris Jones is an effective scorer and Luke Hancock was the Most Outstanding Player in last year’s tournament.
Compare them to some of the other popular picks to win the tournament who have glaring flaws, like Syracuse, who has fallen apart since starting the season 25-0, and Villanova, who just lost to lowly Seton Hall after getting obliterated by Creighton twice in the regular season.
A lot of people will jump on the Kansas bandwagon because of Andrew Wiggins, but with Joel Embiid struggling from an injury, they probably won’t be at full strength. Duke has one of the best players in the country in Jabari Parker, but the team has a serious rebounding weakness that could easily be exposed. As for Kentucky, let’s just say their “best freshman class ever” hasn’t quite lived up to the hype.
Probably the biggest thing Louisville has going for it, though, is something that can’t be quantified: the ability to play big in hostile environments. Back in January, I drove down to Connecticut to watch UConn take on the Cardinals in the most highly anticipated home game of the year. ESPN College Gameday was in town, alumni were packing the campus bars, and navy blue shirts were lining every seat in the house.
The atmosphere inside Gampel Pavilion was electric that night, absolutely electric, and yet by halftime the party was all but over and the place was about as festive as a funeral.
Louisville killed that crowd as quickly and effectively as it killed the Huskies on the boards, and while some terrible officiating didn’t help, no objective observer could have possibly denied that Louisville was the far superior team that day. The Cardinals won big 76-64, and obviously their subsequent meetings didn’t go any better either.
Louisville is for real this season and is without a doubt the hottest team in the country going into the Big Dance. Could they get still tripped up by this year’s Cinderella? Absolutely, but in my opinion they are about as safe a bet to reach the Final Four as any team in the country, and they’re easily the last team I’d want to face along the way.