Don't Forget About Louisville: Defending Champs Down Cincinnati in Statement Win

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 22, 2014

Al Behrman/AP Images

At long last, the defending national champions won a game to make us believe a repeat might be possible, as Louisville outlasted Cincinnati 58-57 on Saturday afternoon.

The Cardinals entered the game having won five consecutive games by 15 or more points. While the Syracuses and Arizonas of the world have been busy eking out wins and suffering occasional losses, Rick Pitino's guys were delivering win after no-doubt win.

But the domination wasn't doing anything for their computer profile.

They came into the game ranked 35th in RPI and 119th in SOS. Take the "fluff" wins out of the equation and Louisville was just 3-4 vs. RPI Top 100 for the entire season.

A road win over an RPI Top-25 team was exactly what the doctor ordered.

It certainly wasn't pretty. The game had the distinctive feel of a grind-it-out type of March Madness battle.

Louisville held a 22-19 halftime lead, even though Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick shot just 2-of-13 from the field and Justin Jackson played only a little over two minutes due to foul trouble. All of the pieces were in place for Cincinnati to pick up a come-from-behind win.

Down the stretch, though, Louisville was simply grittier than one of the toughest teams in the nation.

That's because Russ-diculous showed up when Louisville needed him the most.

With two minutes remaining, Smith was 2-of-9 from the field with seven points and three assists. Even against a defensive-minded team, it was a disappointing effort. After all, he scored 16 points against Cincinnati less than a month ago.

In the final 100 seconds, he had three points and two assists, including the game-winning bucket.

Even more impressive than Smith's rainbow-arcing jumper was the mid-air decision on the previous possession to deliver a beautiful bounce pass to Montrezl Harrell.

A year ago, he most likely would have forced an ill-advised shot.

After the game, Smith posted a video to his Instagram account, penning in the description, "#MyFirstGW!!!!! Last year I would've shot from #HALFCOURT !!"

He isn't scoring quite as much this season, but his improved decision-making is one of the main reasons Louisville is a serious threat to win it all for a second straight year. Over the last six games, Smith has averaged 15.8 points, 3.7 assists and just 1.7 turnovers per game.

LOUISVILLE, KY - FEBRUARY 18: Montrezl Harrell #24 of the Louisville Cardinals celebrates after a basket against the South Florida Bulls during the first half of the game at KFC Yum! Center on February 18, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Joe Robbi
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

But, as has been the case in each of Louisville's big wins this season, Harrell was the real star on Saturday.

Harrell was almost invisible in earlier losses to North Carolina and Kentuckya total of 11 points and 14 reboundsas Louisville relied far too heavily on the guard play of Smith and Chris Jones.

In the Cardinals' four RPI Top 50 wins, however, Harrell has averaged 15.5 points, 11.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. He led the team with 21 points and 10 rebounds against Cincinnati.

Smith and Peyton Siva got most of the love during Louisville's championship run last season, but it was the presence of Gorgui Dieng in the paint that made Louisville so difficult to beat. With Harrell really starting to fill that void, the Cardinals are looking pretty unstoppable once again.

He had just one double-double in Louisville's first 15 games, but has at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in six out of the last 12 games.

Of course, this game could have just as easily gone the other way.

If Smith misses that game-winning jumper, we're suddenly wondering whether or not Louisville is capable of winning the big one this year while talking about Cincinnati as a possible Final Four threat.

As such, we would be remiss if we didn't at least mention how impressive this game was for the Bearcats. They shot just 28.6 percent from the field against the defending champions and still came within one point of completing the season sweep of Louisville.

Kilpatrick's second-half heroics were on display once again. In the Bearcats' last four home games, Kilpatrick is 10-of-36 from the field with just 30 points in the first half. In the second half of those games, he has shot 20-of-39 and scored 71 points.

Meanwhile, Justin Jackson had averaged 12.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks over Cincinnati's previous six games. Unfortunately, he picked up his second foul with 17:46 remaining in the first half and wasn't seen again until after the intermission. It wouldn't be difficult to argue that this would have been a totally different game if he had been able to take part in more of it.

This Cincinnati team plays impeccable defense and will be very difficult to beat in the tournamentprovided Kilpatrick can continue to handle the scoring load.

But for the time being, it's "All Hail the Cardinals."

Louisville is within a half-game of first place in the AAC and will undoubtedly jump back into the AP Top 10 on Monday. If the Cardinals can take care of business down the stretch against Memphis, Southern Methodist and Connecticut, they have a realistic shot at a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.

Whether or not Louisville earns a spot on the top line, the sky is officially the limit.

In the past two decades, Florida is the only team to have won back-to-back national championships, accomplishing the feat during the 2006 and 2007 NCAA tournaments.

After the gutty win over Cincinnati on Saturday, I'm ready to believe Louisville can join that club. 


Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.