Louisville National Champs: College Basketball Did Have a Truly Great Team

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Maybe the season-long narrative was wrong, or at least overblown.

By any measure, statistical or empirical, college basketball had a truly great team after all. And while this one may not stack up favorably with champions of recent vintage, it was a full step above its contemporary competition. In the larger view of appraising teams, what else matters?

If Louisville’s tournament casualties qualify as “very good” — Michigan, Duke and Syracuse (Big East tournament) sure should — the 2013 national champs were indeed “great.” Historically great? No way. Great relative to the latter-day college climate, as diluted as ever before? You bet.

Apr 8, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Louisville Cardinals guard Kevin Ware (left) celebrates with head coach Rick Pitino after the championship game in the 2013 NCAA mens Final Four against the Michigan Wolverines at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Like all great teams, the Cardinals could cripple opponents with their best, but also nip teams at their worst. Louisville romped heavyweights (Duke, Syracuse), scrapped and clawed just to fend off a pesky underdog (Wichita State), even upstaged an apparent team of destiny (Michigan). Each game beckoned a new way of winning, though the final outcome was seldom in doubt.

Rick Pitino’s plucky Cardinals could front-run as well as anybody, but the team’s unique penchant for conquering adversity set it apart. Louisville’s offseason began inauspiciously when a career-ending ACL tear befell Mike Marra, his second such injury in as many years. Obstacles would mount for the Big East preseason favorite over the course of the season, as the team’s ability to overcome them grew in proportion. The Cardinals withstood an early-season suspension to rising sophomore Chane Behanan, waded through a one-month stretch without their star center and hardened in the wake of a chilling injury suffered in the heat of battle.

Peyton Siva and Russ Smith could lull defenders with a standing dribble, then zip by them in a blur once lazy feet set in. The dynamic duo shifted from zero to top-gear quicker than most college guards can go from zero to first. Heck, Siva and Smith made Connecticut’s roadrunners and Michigan’s uber-athletic guards appear as though they were running in quicksand.

Louisville strung teams along like a cat prodding a mouse, then put them away with smothering spurts triggered by its defense. An historically strong defense, that is. Louisville just so happened to own the best defensive efficiency rating in more than a decade, all the while forcing more turnovers per possession than any team in the last 15 years.

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