After their dominant display in Big East final, is Louisville the championship favorite?

·Senior Writer

NEW YORK — The second half of Louisville’s Big East Tournament 78-61 title game victory was as impressive a display as basketball as we’ve seen all season. In all honesty, it was probably one of the most impressive stretches we’ve seen in a long, long time.

The Cardinals rallied from a 16-point deficit and blew Syracuse (playing its fourth game in as many days) off the floor in the second half, using a combination of interior brawn (19 offensive boards) and exterior pressure (20 turnovers forced) to survive on a night where they weren’t shooting the ball particularly well for most of the game. All told, they held Syracuse without a field goal for a stretch of more than 10 minutes, going on a 49-16 run to close the game.

Forty-nine. To 16.

With Duke and Indiana failing to even get to the championship games of their conference tournaments, it seems only fair to ask the following question: Are the Louisville Cardinals the team to beat in the NCAA Tournament?

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When the polls were released on January 14th, Rick Pitino’s squad was number one in the AP balloting. This was only the second time in the program’s history they’d reached that ranking, and they got to hold onto it for exactly one week before falling to Syracuse. They followed that loss with two more, and until this week, it seems like they’ve been cruising under the radar as team after team ascended to the top of the polls.

Until tonight in the Garden, where a suffocation of Syracuse served as the closing argument in their case as best in the country.

If you believe that success in college basketball is driven by guards, then the Cardinals fit the bill. They have one of the most dynamic backcourts in the nation, with Peyton Siva (back-to-back Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player) and Russ Smith, who are undersized but almost supernaturally quick. They have Gorgui Dieng inside, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and a projected first rounder in this summer’s NBA draft. Sophomore Chase Behanan, a toolsy, athletic, forward oozing with talent who was Most Outstanding Player of the West Regional last year, mans the wing.

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And it just keeps going. Freshman Montrezl Harrell was perhaps the best player on the court Saturday night, finishing with 20 points, seven rebounds and a whole new level of respect from fans across the nation. Wing Luke Hancock is shooting 38% from three. Reserve guard Kevin Ware provides more-than-capable relief for Siva and Smith, giving them enough of a breather to let them fly around the court. Wayne Blackshear and Stephan Van Treese give Pitino even more flexibility depending on the opponent.

The team is driven by its defense, which is one of the best of the last decade, a sentence that sounds like hyperbole but absolutely isn't. College hoops stats guru Ken Pomeroy has numbers dating back to 2003, and this Louisville team has the best defensive efficiency of any team since he started keeping track. The average Division I team this season has scored 100.6 points per 100 possessions. The Cardinals? They allow 80.9. Their guards pressure, and their big men bully; opponents have to earn every single bucket.

[Related: Top seed in peril after disappointing Indiana loss]

They have stars. They have a deep bench. They have a coach that’s won it before. They made the Final Four last year with a similar-looking team. They are only the fourth team in history to repeat as Big East Tournament champions. They also haven’t lost a regulation game since January. In fact, let’s take a closer look at the Louisville losses this season.

  • In late November they fell to Duke by five on a neutral floor. They were without the services of Dieng due to injury, and started Zach Price at center against the Blue Devils. Price has played one minute since mid-January

  • The aforementioned mid-January loss at home to Syracuse by two points, the game where they lost their position at the top of the polls. The Cardinals led by as many as eight in the second half and have avenged this loss twice, on both the Orange’s home floor and tonight in the Garden (which sounded a lot like the Orange’s home floor for most of the night).

  • A loss at Villanova three days later, a classic hangover game if there ever was one. The Cardinals exacted vengeance for that defeat on Thursday night in the Garden, wiping the Wildcats off the floor in a 74-55 blowout.

  • And then one more loss at Georgetown, the last of a three-game losing streak, this one by two points.

  • In a game that started on February 9th but bled into the following day, Louisville fell to Notre Dame 104-101 in five overtimes. The Cardinals seemed to have the game locked up, but blew an eight-point lead with fifty-one seconds remaining and missed shots at the end of regulation and most of the overtimes. They have beaten the Irish twice since, both by double-digit margins.

The only game Louisville has lost since January required five overtimes and the luck of the Fighting Irish. The only loss all season that could possibly be considered bad was at Villanova, and they’re an NCAA tournament lock. Contrast this to the rest of your top seeds:

  • Indiana – Three losses in their last six games, including one to bubble team Minnesota

  • Duke – Two losses to Maryland and one to Virginia, who will both need miracles to make the field of 68. In Duke’s defense, the only one of those games Ryan Kelly played in was the second one versus the Terrapins, but that was also the last game they played.

  • Kansas – They’ve lost three of their last five road games and needed overtime to win the other two. One of those losses was to TCU (which ended up 2-16 in Big XII play) and another was a 23-point drubbing by Baylor last Saturday. Neither the Horned Frogs nor Bears will be participating in the NCAA Tournament.

  • Gonzaga – Two respectable losses, but they’re only played two RPI Top 25 teams all season (1-1), while Louisville has gone up against seven (4-3). They haven’t played a team from outside the West Coast Conference since mid-January when they lost at Butler. They’re playing good basketball, but against weaker competition.

Now this isn’t to say that the Hoosiers, Blue Devils, Jayhawks or Bulldogs couldn’t win the NCAA title. Of course they could, because they are all incredibly good basketball teams. But if you had to pick the team that’s been playing the best basketball over the last six weeks, it’s hard to go against the team that A) Has the best defense in the last decade and B) Has lost one of their last 14 games, which was on the road and in quintuple overtime.

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The Cardinals are going to hear their name called as one of the top overall seeds. They will likely end up in the Midwest, playing their first two games in Lexington (90 minutes from campus) and their Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games in Indianapolis (less than two hours from the Yum! Center). They went to the Final Four last year and played the eventual national champs as well as anyone, falling to a Kentucky team that resembled an NBA training squad.

Maybe you don’t think there is a favorite to cut down the nets in three weeks, but if you’re looking for a frontrunner? You could do far worse than this Cardinals squad.

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