10:27 PM EDT, March 15, 2014
In this column that appeared in The Courant on March 16, 2014 - after UConn's loss to Louisville in the AAC tournament final - columnist Jeff Jacobs went out on a limb. Read on!
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The basketball ended up in Montrezl Harrell's hands and he pounded it hard into the FedExForum court, then he pounded it harder and ultimately Harrell pounded the ball so hard as the final buzzer sounded that it bounced as high as the backboard.
The Louisville big man pounded home a point. Louisville is one bad-ass college basketball team.
UConn, which fell easily Saturday night to the Cardinals, 71-61 in the AAC tournament championship, wants no part of the Cardinals in the NCAA Tournament. Here's the thing. Nobody should want any part of Louisville and its matchup zone in the NCAA Tournament.
That's a Final Four team right there. The 2013 national champions may well be the 2014 national champions. They won't be a No. 1 seed on selection Sunday, but they certainly are a scary seed.
The No. 1 UConn women played highly ranked Louisville three times this season. The UConn women beat Louisville three times. They outscored Louisville by a total of 57 points.
The UConn men played Louisville three times. The UConn men lost to Louisville three times. They were outscored by Louisville by a total of 55 points.
Sometimes numbers lie. Not this time.
Color me convinced. Louisville won its third conference tournament title in a row by a combined total of 100 points.
"Do I think we should be [a No. 1 seed]? Yes, I do," coach Rick Pitino said. "Do I think we will be? No … but the way we have done it fits the eye test. I can't talk about the strength of the league. If you want to blame anybody, blame football. Don't blame us."
Look, the Huskies didn't embarrass themselves as they did in that 33-point loss a week ago in Louisville. They didn't roll over. In fact, they did some good things in the second half and overall this trip to Memphis should be seen as a team righting its ship. They have established themselves as the second team in the AAC and move steadily into the NCAA Tournament with the same legitimate hopes and dreams as in November.
That would be a team definitely capable of making it to the Sweet Sixteen and with a shot at an Elite Eight game. It all depends on the matchups, of course. Memphis, for example, is a wonderful matchup for the Huskies. Louisville is a horrible one.
Either way, UConn coach Kevin Ollie isn't backing off what he told the UConn student section after the last home game at Gampel Pavilion. You may remember when he grabbed the microphone and told them to reserve a date in April to "raise a banner." That one had me silencing my cynicism with a jar of happy pills, but there was Ollie again Saturday night …
"Now we go to the next tournament," Ollie said. "We want to win the national championship. I still believe in this team."
Color me not convinced. Call me the doubting Pitino if you want, but I'll carry this banner from the state Capitol to Gampel Pavilion if UConn wins the national championship.
After demolishing Memphis and eking out a two-point victory over Cincinnati — both fine victories — the five seed sounds right for UConn. That would put them in the 16 to 20 range overall nationally. We'll see how this goes in the next day. Bracketology runs rampant, of course. The Huskies could go to Spokane, Wash. The Huskies could go to Buffalo, N.Y. The Huskies could go to Orlando, Fla. They Huskies could go to a lot of places.
But one place Ollie, to his credit, didn't want to go was to the land of moral victories after his team lost by 10 instead of 33.
"I'm not into any moral victories, but I did like how we responded in the second half," Ollie said. "I liked how we got Amida [Brimah] involved. DeAndre [Daniels] started establishing himself in the four hole. That's how you beat the zone. You get it to the high post and then you make plays. Our guards started passing it in there and we started making some shots.
"That's what we're going to need to do going forward, so we'll be able to play with a matchup zone. You never know what's going to come in the NCAA Tournament. Every coach is going to come with something new. I thought our ball movement was actually great and we started making shots. We had 10 assists in the second half after four in the first half. That's improvement."
There is no denying the credibility of Ollie's X's and O's assessment of the second half, but the game was already decided and there were long stretches of semi-involved play. When the Cardinals give it all to their matchup zone, they are frightening. Fast. Ferocious.
The 10-point differential flatters the Huskies. They were down 14 at halftime. The lead grew to 20 five minutes into the second half and stuck in the 15- to 19-point range until the closing minutes of garbage time.
The Cardinals are every bit as good as folks thought they might be at the beginning of the season, back when they were picked by the league coaches for No. 1 in the AAC, back when the writers had them third in the nation in the AP poll with 14 of the 55 first-place votes and a national coaching panel had them third in the ESPN poll with 10 of 33 first-place votes.
They are playing as well as any team in America right now.
Asked if he agreed, Napier answered: "I don't watch college basketball. I don't know what to tell you."
That's not a lie. Last year when the Huskies were ineligible for the tournament, Napier said he didn't watch either. He said he was watching "Animal Planet."
Harrell was the best player Saturday night. Smith was the best player over three nights in Memphis. Harrell is a bear and Louisville's 16 offensive rebounds went a long way into breaking this game open. Russ Smith is a mongoose. He is every bit as fast as Ryan Boatright and better at basketball. Shabazz Napier is a little better at basketball, but not as fast. It is startling to watch Smith on defensive pressure. He had five steals in this game and it felt like 10.
"That zone is definitely tough," Napier said. "They're not going to man-up. They kind of pack every thing in. Guys are just glued to myself and Niels [Giffey] and Boat when they run me off the ball. They definitely play good defense.
"I'm not surprised. I've playing it for a while. We've just to go figure it out. We lost it in the first half. We didn't play so well. We competed in the second half. We didn't move the ball the right way in the first half. We didn't knock down shots when we had open shots. We didn't find the rhythm. They did play great defense. And we gave up too many offensive rebounds in the first half."
All true. So we leave Memphis with these notions. Memphis is going to be shocked in the national tournament because it plays lousy defense. Cincinnati is going to be shocked in the NCAAs because it starves for points. UConn is very good and can make a run into the second weekend. Louisville is a Final Four team.
"We're going to go deep in this tournament," Ollie said.
How deep will determine the length of my walk.
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