Louisville vs. Duke: Now the Real Challenge Begins for the Cardinals

Doug BrodessCorrespondent IMarch 31, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 31:  (L-R) Peyton Siva #3 and Chane Behanan #21 of the Louisville Cardinals, wearing the #5 jersey belonging to teammate Kevin Ware, celebrate after they won 85-63 against the Duke Blue Devils during the Midwest Regional Final round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 31, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Ware suffered a compund fracture of his leg in the first half.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Louisville Cardinals are going back to the Final Four for the second year in a row.

Head coach Rick Pitino and his Cards did not start the journey to the 2013 Final Four after this year’s Selection Sunday. They began this trip almost a year ago when they lost to the 2012 NCAA Champs, Kentucky, in the national semifinals.

ESPN Stats and Information reports that “Louisville is the second Big East team to make the Final Four in consecutive seasons. Georgetown did it in 1984 and 1985.”

Virtually the same team came back intact this year. Rather than sitting back and allowing complacency to drain this team of their force and effectiveness, the Cardinals have used the last 12 months to focus their efforts on getting to Atlanta.

Two different events today might sharpen their concentration even further.

Kevin Ware’s season-ending injury is one. The team’s emotional reaction to this devastating loss very easily could become a further rallying point.

Even their decision today to not cut down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy demonstrates their single-mindedness about the national championship and not just the regional one. In fact, the Cards did not cut down the nets at the Big East Tournament.

Attention and intensity alone are not enough for any team to win it all in Atlanta.

Louisville needs to accomplish three main goals if they are going to finish this year-long pursuit.


Consistent Scoring From Russ Smith

Louisville’s SG Russ Smith is averaging 26 points per game in the first four tournament games. ESPN's Stats and Information reported that:

Russ Smith is the fourth player (along with Shane Battier and Jay Williams both from Duke in 2001, and Arizona’s Khalid Reeves in 1994) in the last 20 seasons to score at least 20 points in each of his first four tournament games and make the Final Four.

One of the challenges that the Cards faced at different times of the year was simply putting the ball in the hole.

If Smith can extend his run of offensive excellence for two more games, then further success is ahead in Atlanta.


Continued Shooting Accuracy from the Team

In the Cardinals' four March Madness wins, they have shot a combined 55 percent (119-for-216) from the field. That is almost a full 10 percent better than the 45.4 percent that they shot during the regular season.

Yes, the teams in the Final Four, starting with Wichita State, will apply significant pressure on any and all shots. The Cardinals will be challenged every time they take the ball to the rim or spot up to shoot.

But if Louisville’s shot selection stays sharp and they continue to get the ball into the lane, good things will continue to happen for them.


Increased Pressure on Opponents’ Shooters

Louisville is known for their suffocating defensive pressure.

But during the four games of the tournament, strangely, Louisville has been allowing their opponents to shoot a combined 42.2 percent from the field. In the regular season, the Cards limited their opponents to 39.2 percent.

It’s surprising that Duke shot the worst (36.5 percent) of Louisville’s challengers.

If the Cards can duplicate that same trouble for the teams at the Final Four, they will be a hard team to beat.


Ahead in Atlanta

Momentum and passion are great qualities for teams to bring with them to championship contests.

Louisville has both of those already packed in their suitcases.

Adding the above attributes will position Rick Pitino’s Cardinals to finally get to do what they have been waiting to do: Cut down the nets!