March 25th, 2012

Thoughts from the Infraredeye on U of L’s Final Four run

It’s a privilege to write a story on A-1 of the newspaper about a team making a Final Four, or, as I was fortunate to be able to do this time last year, a national championship with Bellarmine.

But you also can’t work in a lot of stuff, more personal perspective. So that’s what I want to do here. As best I can, I’ll take you through this. I’m on the redeye back to Louisville (thank goodness for in-flight wifi), so why not? This is just some little stuff that might otherwise get lost.

First, with a game like this, a story like this, it’s hard to know where to start.

Come on. You’re going to put the ball into the hands of Russ Smith with four minutes left and say, “Here you go Russ, drive us home.”

Three months ago, that would have been like the pilot of this plane coming back to me and saying, OK buddy, land it. No, wait. Not even that. It’d be like the pilot coming up to the 16-year-old kid next to me and telling HIM to land it.

But today, when Smith took the wheel, I actually felt like the Cards were all right. He might win the game or lose it, but he would not shrink from what was coming. Wouldn’t happen.


And he did some crazy things. He put that ball up for grabs on the last turnover. But he also did some great things. He buried two free throws, even with Billy Donovan calling a timeout to ice him on the second. You can’t ice a man with Red Bull in his veins. (I don’t even know what that means. Cut me some slack, it’s been an all-nighter.)

"We wouldn’t have been in this game if not for Russ," Rick Pitino said. "We might not have been in this tournament if not for him."

I DON’T KNOW IF YOU CAUGHT IT in my column from the locker room after the Michigan State win. But when PItino asked C.L. Brown and me to sit down, he shot a little wink my direction, and I immediately thought, “He thinks he’s got this.” And they did think they had it. But I don’t think they ever envisioned things going as badly as they went in the game against Florida.

Nothing broke their way. Not the foul situation (back-to-back games, their opponent have not been whistled for a foul in the first 9 minutes). Florida came into the game shooting 26 percent from 3-point range in the tournament. They made 8 of 11 in the first half.

THIS IS PRETTY IMPORTANT. I wrote about the adjustment of going man-to-man defensively to win the game in my Sunday column. But that was just the first adjustment of the second half. Bob Valvano, who knows more about the game than maybe 98 percent of basketball analysts working today, was talking to me at a party the coaches and some U of L folks were having at the the Coach and Willie’s bar after the game.

Moving to man-to-man was adjustment No. 1 of the second half, but there were four. Donovan made his own adjustment to the man-to-man, so Pitino then started blitzing the ball. Donovan adjusted to that, as well, so Pitino made the adjustment to switching everything in the man-to-man.

Donovan saw it immediately and it took him less than a minute to catch Siva on a switch and foul him out.

Then Pitino made another change. U of L would continue to switch everything, but Cardinal defenders would switch BEFORE the screen, not as the screen was run.

Then there was one more thing. Donovan coached a fantastic game. When Pitino went man, he immediately pulled Dieng out to the top — as Florida did with Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. Pitino then had Dieng and Kyle Kuric switch men, keeping Dieng under the basket. The result was a blocked shot that saved the game for the Cardinals.

"People won’t realize how brilliant Billy was," Valvano said. "And they really need to realize just how tremendous Rick was in this game."

(And give Valvano some credit. He wears a makeshift Goodwill sweater to a game at the Big East Tourney and now superstition won’t let him change. He’s going to Goodwill and buying shirts — and one had french cuffs, and he’s using earrings for cufflinks and they cut his wrist. The guy is probably wearing a dead man’s clothes just to stay out of the way of a streak. Goodwill, if you’re reading, you better go buy some ad time on the man’s radio show.)

OR, HOW ABOUT THIS TURN OF FATE? Wayne Blackshear, who was supposed to be the key player for U of L this year but was sidelined and slowed by a shoulder injury, ends up as the guy on the line, up 3 with just under 3 seconds left, to ice a trip to the Final Four.

A freshman. A freshman who minutes earlier, according to Adam Lefkoe of WHAS-TV (and those guys did a great job all week), had said to coaches to go with Elisha Justice in a pressure situation when they needed free throw shooters on the floor and knew Florida was going to foul.

Blackshear comes up and misses a free throw. And from behind me comes a screaming voice. “Do just one thing this year!” And then, slower and louder, “MAKE … A … FREE … THROW!”

I turn, and it’s Andre McGee, a former point guard for the Cards who missed in two Elite Eight tries, and who now is a program assistant for the Cards. Blackshear swished the second.

I think Andre was more emotional and more happy than any of the current players.

I saw him after the game outside the locker room and all he said was, “Coach P is the man.”

WHEN YOU TWEET ALL THE WAY THROUGH A GAME, it’s sometimes funny to go back and look at what you were saying.

After the technical and U of L trailing by 11 with 9 minutes left, I Tweeted, “Florida was up 11 with nine to play against Butler in last year’s Elite Eight.”

Then came the recrimination, as often comes from Twitter. It came again about three minutes later when I said, “Despite all that’s happened (foul trouble and bad shooting and Florida being hot) U of L has outscored Florida by 2 this half.”

I never felt like the Cardinals were out of it. And it’s funny, because if they’d lost Dieng, I’d have felt like they were out of it.

AT THE U OF L PARTY AFTER THE GAME, I GOT THE STANDARD GREETING. “We know you root for UK, but you’re okay.” Which I’m sure UK fans will be quick to guffaw over.

It’s always the same, and it’s rather funny. What bothers me is that nobody seems to remember the positive you write. On either side. I’ve written four A-1 columns on U of L in the past three weeks, but when UK shows up on the front page, Cardinal fans lose it. And vice versa.

It’s going to be a rough week if UK wins against Baylor. Neither side, from a fan standpoint, will give the other any credit, and if you, as journalist, decide to give them credit, then you’re declaring allegiance to the other side.

On a related media note, U of L fans keep getting worked up when national media types pick them to lose. But the people picking them to lose haven’t been around this team or these coaches. And in some cases, they’re just not paying attention. Everybody said Florida would have too much offense. Florida came into the game shooting 26 percent from three for the tournament.

I rarely am right on predictions. But I picked this U of L team to the Final Four on this very blog, and explained why. But again, pick their team to win and fans in general, will ignore you. If you want attention, you pick against them, then count the Twitter followers!

Here’s a great thing Pitino said about predictions and national media types, and it involved Seth Davis of CBS:

"I was walking out and my wife said to me, isn’t Seth Davis a friend of yours?  I said, he’s a good friend of mine, I take him golfing.  Someone said he tweeted I guarantee you that Florida will win.  I said, honey, that is the greatest news, outside of Digger, that’s the greatest thing that can happen to us.  He’s never right. He’s the guy that goes to a racetrack for a week and goes 0 for 45.  It’s awesome.  I didn’t think we had a shot until that happened when I was walking out the door."

COME ON (AGAIN). RUSS SMITH? The barbershop owner’s son? They asked Kuric on Friday what Smith thinks when Pitino is ripping him al the time, if he just lets it roll off his back or what.

"Honestly, I think he forgets it," Kuric said. "I think his memory is about 30 seconds."

It was something else watching Russ Smith climb the ladder to cut the nets. I couldn’t resist, as he kind of fumbled the scissors, telling U of L sports information director Kenny Klien, “Look at him. He hasn’t been that close to the rim this year without taking a shot. I don’t think he knows what to do.”

KURIC, BY THE WAY, didn’t have his best game. But he did have his best moment. As C.L. Brown wrote about in his game story, after the technical, Kuric gathered the guys together on the court and gave a quick but spirited talk, telling guys to keep it together, stay calm, and execute.

CHANE BEHANAN, in the second half against both Michigan State and Florida, was the best post player on the court. His willingness to take the big shot, and ability to get the big rebound, bodes very well.

Both of U of L’s national titles were won with freshmen playing key roles inside. Rodney McCray in 1980, and Pervis Ellison in 1986.

COINCIDENCES. U of L has won six straight games that I’ve covered. Last year, the last six Cardinal games I covered, they lost. The Cards have gone 16-2 in games I’ve covered this season, with the only losses at Cincinnati and at Kentucky.

Jerry Brewer, my predecessor as C-J columnist and now a columnist for the Seattle Times, came down to cover the regional. The last time he and I covered a U of L regional together was 2005, when the Cards beat West Virginia, and I was the C-J’s U of L beat writer.

I KNOW ROY WILLIAMS has taken multiple teams to multiple Final Fours. He had a few with Kansas and has had four with North Carolina. But I’m not sure who else has done it besides, now, Pitino.

AFTER THE GAME I WALKED INTO THE NEARLY EMPTY locker room and there was maybe the most valuable staffer, outside the coaches. Trainer Fred Hina. Quite a year for you, I told him.

"Quite a year for these coaches," Hina said. "I’m just glad we could have them all healthy at the right time."

There’s certainly more to tell, and much more will be written. I just wanted to get some of these things down before they get lost in the hype that is to come.

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@ericcrawford

Sports writing from Eric Crawford of WDRB.com in Louisville, Ky.

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