Apr 8, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Louisville Cardinals celebrate after defeating the Michigan Wolverines 82-76 during the championship game in the 2013 NCAA mens Final Four at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Final Grade: Louisville Cardinals

Before we ultimately put a lid on the 2012-13 season, Play For The Garden is evaluating the year of each member of the Big East.

Team:  Louisville Cardinals

Record:  35-5 overall / 14-4 in the Big East

How did their season finish:  the best way it could – National Champions

Accomplishments:  Big East regular season co-champions, Big East tournament champions, National Champions

Leading scorer:  Russ Smith with 18.7 PPG

Leading rebounder:  Gorgui Dieng with 9.4 RPG

The Louisville Cardinals brought back the same core group from last year’s team that made a run to the Final Four.  So needless to say – expectations were very high for this team entering the season.  It started off a bit shaky when Gorgui Dieng went down with a broken wrist in only their fifth game of the year down in the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis.  They lost their first game without him in the lineup (to a pretty good Duke team), but luckily he only missed four weeks after that.  He returned just in time to help the Cards beat inter-state rival Kentucky Wildcats.

Louisville looked practically unbeatable until they hit a bit of a rough patch in mid-January.  Syracuse edged out a close two point victory down in Louisville, then the Cards went on the road and got upset by Villanova, who we quickly learned was a better team than originally thought, and then lost at Georgetown, who had a very successful season themselves.

After that speed bump, their only other loss came in a five overtime thriller at Notre Dame.  Louisville had the ball at the end of regulation and every overtime period, but Russ Smith failed time and time again to drop the dagger.  I’m going to miss Russ Smith now that he is headed to the NBA.

Louisville never lost again after that heartbreaker, rolling off 16 straight wins capped by a national championship and a Big East tournament championship in between.

Rick Pitino had a very talented team on his hands this year and he guided them to the top of the college basketball world.  Peyton Siva, beyond oddly battling foul trouble often, was the great facilitator that everyone expected, Gorgui Dieng controlled the low-post on both ends of the court, Russ Smith was one of the most electrifying scorers in all of college basketball, Chane Behanan could flip a switch and become a man amongst boys in the low post, and Wayne Blackshear and Kevin Ware provided excellent depth.

But at the end of the day, Luke Hancock proved to be the difference maker.  Louisville struggled on offense last year and that needed to change in order for them to get to the next level and win a championship.  Hancock, an excellent 3-point shooter, finished with 20 and 22 points in their Final Four and national championship games respectively.  He was clutch, earning Final Four most outstanding player honors, and without him the Cardinals may have come up short once again.

The Louisville Cardinals were the best team not only in the Big East, but in the country all season long.  And most of their dominance was predicated on their #1 ranked defense.  Their consistent pressure from Siva, Smith and Ware combined with the big back court of Dieng, Behanan and Montrezl Harrell was too much for teams to overcome.  Even Michigan, the most efficient offensive team in the country, eventually succumbed to it.

It was a memorable season for many reasons (I’d like to somehow erase the Kevin Ware injury from my mind, however), and they prevailed as the lone team standing in the end.  It was well deserved and they sent the ‘old’ Big East off in perfect fashion.

The Grade:  A+ 

They won the national championship – can’t get any better than that.

Tags: Basketball Final Four Gorgui Dieng Louisville Cardinals Luke Hancock Primary Russ Smith

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