After starting the season in the shadows of fellow national power programs like the Connecticut Huskies, North Carolina Tar Heels, Ohio State Buckeyes and rival Kentucky Wildcats, the Louisville Cardinals and head coach Rick Pitino look poised to win a national championship.
This weekend's heavyweight battle for bluegrass supremacy against the Wildcats and their maestro, the slick-talking John Calipari, will serve as the biggest speed bump left on the way to becoming the 2012 kings of college hoops.
Since taking over the Louisville program in 2001, he has rebuilt the Cardinals program while leading them to a 2005 Final Four appearance. This season will bring Pitino his first national title as the Louisville head man, which will give him the distinction of winning both a national title in red, as well as blue- for the Kentucky Wildcats in 1996.
Much like the Connecticut Huskies team last season, the 2012 Louisville team has the look of a special team late in the season.
They brought home the 2012 Big East Tournament title by taking down Seton Hall, Marquette and Notre Dame before defeating the Cincinnati Bearcats 50-44 in the championship game.
The main reason this year's team has continually lurked in the shadows is their lack of a media-magnet superstar like North Carolina's Harrison Barnes or Kansas power forward Thomas Robinson. While many of the stars of the 2012 college basketball season have kept their respective teams in the headlines each week and every week, Louisville has quietly pieced together an impressive 30 win season.
The Cardinals play an extremely unselfish brand of basketball, led by their confident junior point guard Peyton Siva. Coming into the season, he garnered attention as a possible all-american candidate. However, his numbers were lackluster throughout the year. His statistics remained stagnant and similar to last season, where he averaged just over nine points per game, to go along with over five assists.
What many fans didn't see behind the boxscores of each game is the importance Siva has to this Louisville team. He has as much value to the Cardinals as Anthony Davis does to Kentucky, or Jared Sullinger does to Ohio State.
He has tremendous court vision, finding open teammates easily, while also being one of the most disruptive defensive players in the Big East. He proved his worth in the Big East tournament this year, bringing home the tournament's Most Outstanding Player Award after averaging 12.5 points and 6.5 assists in the Cardinal's four games.
His ability to push the ball in transition and find open 3-point shooters has made Rick Pitino's club very dangerous, and Siva is getting hot at the right time.
Perhaps the most surprisingly consistent player on the team's march toward a title is sophomore Russ Smith.
The 6'0" guard has had double-digit scoring outbursts in the Cardinals past three games against New Mexico, Michigan State and Florida.
In their Elite Eight matchup with the Gators, he was the deciding factor, scoring 19 points and grabbing five rebounds in their 72-68 victory. He's exactly the kind of unselfish, tough guard Pitino loves to recruit, and he's stepping up in a big way for his team right now.
On the interior, the team has been anchored by unheralded 6'11" sophomore Gorgui Dieng, one of the best shot-blockers in America. Coming into Saturday's showdown, he has averaged 3.2 blocks per game, but will be largely overshadowed by Kentucky's freshman superstar Anthony Davis.
On a larger scale, that individual matchup, and its perception by the media, has been the theme all season for the Cardinals. They have plenty of dangerous pieces that all fit together to form one of the toughest, most effective teams in the country. They won't always win pretty, but they all play their heart out for their head coach Rick Pitino.
With Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, Gorgui Dieng, Kyle Kuric and Chance Behanan leading the way, this undervalued Louisville team will show the rest of the country that nothing is more dangerous than a team that players for one another instead of playing for their NBA future, and when all is said and done, Rick Pitino will solidy his legacy as one of the best coaches the game of basketball has ever seen, with the 2012 National Championship trophy as proof.