Killing time before the University of Kentucky’s Elite Eight matchup with West Virginia, I thought I’d revisit some previous Elite Eight trips and the advance stories we wrote about those. I would share the recaps, but thought it might be more fitting to look at what we were seeing and saying before those games.
Here’s one Rick Bozich wrote on the eve of the University of Louisville’s Elite Eight game against Michigan State last season.
AN ELITE RUN
By RICK BOZICH, March 29, 2009, Page A-1
INDIANAPOLIS – Andre McGee grabbed a tire, tied a rope around it and then tied the other end of the rope around his waist. He dragged that tire up and down a track in Southern California all summer.
Jerry Smith bought a jump rope. Then Smith danced and worked with that jump rope as if he was training to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world.
Earl Clark asked Ellis Myles, a veteran of the University of Louisville’s 2005 NCAA Final Four run, to meet him in the gymnasium several days a week. He asked Myles to make him tougher. Clark asked Myles to make him the kind of player that could push another Louisville team into the Final Four.
Today is the day to complete that push. Today is the day to earn a reward for the sweat invested in that tire, that jump rope, those bruising sessions with Myles and the extra running this team committed to at 6 a.m. in August and September.
Today is the day the University of Louisville basketball team plays Michigan State at 2:20 p.m. in the NCAA Midwest Regional championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The winner plays next Saturday at the NCAA Final Four in Detroit. The loser? Don’t ask. The loser stirs the same feelings that were stirred last season when these two teams were stopped one game (UofL) or two games (Michigan State) short of the 2008 Final Four.
“We could taste it,” Smith said, remembering the locker room scene in Charlotte after Louisville lost to North Carolina, 83-73, in the East Regional final precisely 365 days ago.
“We sat in the locker room for about 20 minutes, all of us. We just shook because we fought so hard and left it all out on the floor. To come so close, it was very disappointing.”
Samardo Samuels, Louisville’s freshman center, was not in that locker room. He watched the game with a friend in New Jersey. But Samuels has heard the stories. And Samuels has his own memories, memories he undoubtedly shares with Louisville fans who watched the North Carolina game on television.
“I remember screaming at the TV, especially after (UNC forward Tyler) Hansbrough made those shots,” Samuels said. “I couldn’t believe they played that great and still got beat so close to the Final Four.”
Indeed. Louisville played great. North Carolina played better. U of L lost to UNC on a day when the Cardinals made nearly 53 percent of their shots. Their motivation for this season, especially during the summer, was inspired by disappointment.
Michigan State lost to Memphis by 18 points in the semifinals of the South Regional. The Spartans trailed by 30 at halftime. Their motivation for this season was inspired by embarrassment.
Either way, today both teams are where they expected to be, playing in a game that nearly everybody expected them to play in. Louisville, the region’s top seed, started the season ranked third in the initial Associated Press Top 25. Michigan State, the two seed, was ranked sixth in November.
“We were in the same situation last year and fell short of everybody’s dream to get to the Final Four,” U of L coach Rick Pitino said. “So we’re very excited to be playing a great Michigan State team.”
If you study the way that Pitino chases greatness, you wonder if his team needs to lose a game like the game that Louisville lost to North Carolina last season to make a more determined and successful push the following season.
As the University of Kentucky coach, Pitino lost to Duke in 1992 and then roared back the next season to beat Florida State by 25 to make the 1993 Final Four. Still at UK, he lost to North Carolina in 1995 and then roared back again to beat Wake Forest by 20 in a 1996 regional final before the Wildcats won the NCAA title.
Pitino did not seem certain there was a direct connection. But his NCAA Tournament record is clear. And last season his team lost the Big East regular-season title at Georgetown on the final Saturday of the regular season. This season this Louisville team won the Big East regular-season title at West Virginia on the final Saturday of the regular season.
For the last 13 games, all victories, Pitino’s team has played as well as it has played all season. They have played like vintage Pitino teams. They are averaging more than 79 points. They are making better than 51 percent of their shots, nearly 43 percent of their three-pointers. They are outrebounding opponents by more than two per game. They are forcing nearly three more turnovers per game than they commit.
They are playing like a team that does not intend for its season to end at the same point it ended last season.
“We remember how we felt when we lost last season without getting to the Final Four,” U of L forward Earl Clark said. “We don’t want that feeling again.”