Louisville is playing its best basketball of the season at the right time and its best basketball is scary good.
The defending national champion Cardinals finished off a remarkable four-game run of blowouts Saturday by winning the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship 71-61 over Connecticut in a game that wasn't as close as the final margin indicates. The Huskies were victimized twice in those four games by the Cardinals, who will likely go into the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 or 4 seed because of a weak nonconference schedule.
With Louisville playing like a No. 1 seed late in the season, it is unquestionably the team no opponent is going to want to be paired against when the NCAA bracket is released Sunday.
If Louisville does end up as a No. 4 seed, potential No. 1 seeds such as Florida, Wichita State or Michigan could end up having an awfully difficult Sweet 16 matchup in the Cardinals. They've lost just once since late January, beat Rutgers by 61 points in its first game in the conference tournament and followed up with a 29-point victory over Houston in the semifinals. It beat UConn by 33 in the regular season finale last week before beating the Huskies handily again Saturday.
It is because of that run that Louisville coach Rick Pitino believes his team has earned a No. 1 seed.
"We're probably going to be a one seed," Pitino told ESPN during his postgame television interview. "The run we're on, we certainly fit the eye test. If we don't get the one with the type of February we had, we're probably going to get a two.
No team playing as well as Louisville is reliant on one player, and no player has been more vital to Louisville's run than senior guard Russ Smith. He scored a career-high 42 points during the four-game run and also dished a career high 11 assists in another game. He was named the Most Outstanding Player of the conference tournament after scoring 19 in the victory over UConn on Saturday.
As good as Smith has been, it is expected from him to a degree. What hasn't necessarily been expected is the emergence of forward Motrezl Harrell, who is playing as well as any big man in the country. He led the Cardinals with 22 points and 11 rebounds in the championship game. He also blocked three shots.
Pitino also has dependable options such as 2013 Final Four MVP Luke Hancock, guard Chris Jones and Wayne Blackshear and selfless forward Stephan Van Treese. It's going to take a talented, focused team to dethrone these guys.
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