In advance of one of that day’s Elite Eight battles in 2009, also between the Louisville Cardinals and the Michigan State Spartans, I arrived early at the cavernous media room in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium.
While some bare bones basics are the same — Cards vs. Sparty, Izzo vs. Pitino, F4 on the line — there are some drastic differences.
That U of L team, one with high expectations all year that rarely abated, the top-ranked #1 seed in the Dance, was on a 13 game win streak, was coming off a 39 point drubbing of Arizona in the Regional Semis, and was steamrolling toward what many Cardinal fans expected to be Rick Pitino’s first title at U of L.
As I am wont to do, given my penchant to focus just on U of L and, given that I rarely blog previews to games, I hadn’t viewed Sparty through a microscope.
Which, since there was plenty of time to kill, I did that morning. Frankly, it was bracing.
What I recall thinking: This game is not a given. The Spartans are good.
Prescient thoughts, those.
Little did any of us know that day in advance of that defeat that Pitino had a personal situation percolating that blurred his focus, that Terrence Williams would meltdown in the glare of the spotlight, that Michigan State was tougher and more ready.
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What strikes me about today’s tussle for the interloper’s spot in the Final Four is how similar are the ’14-’15 Cardinals to the ’14-’15 Spartans.
Plagued with deficiencies, neither is among the best of Izzo’s or Pitino’s squads. There were times for both during the season, when a first weekend exit from the tourney seemed a fait accompli.
U of L fell to NC State and Syracuse consecutively in mid February, while there was boil, boil toil and trouble turmoil off the court. That same month, State lost to Illinois and Minnesota . . . at home.
But as too many past Dancing With The Stars performances have indicated, Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino would tweak and fiddle and continue to fine tune, tightening a bolt here, loosening a belt there, getting their guys ready for peak performance come crunch time.1
So, now each outfit saunters to center court for today’s tip off, three tourney tickets punched, looking to be the surprising unexpected guest at next weekend’s party. To be held, of course, at a site most familiar to both, Lucas Oil.
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The similarities don’t end there.
Some are historical.
This is the Cards’ 14th Elite Eight appearance; Sparty’s 13th. U of L is seeking its 10th Final Four spot: Michigan State, its 8th.
The schools have met five times previously, and the series is almost even. L 5, MS 3. Michigan State got the better of the Cards that day in ’09. Louisville returned the favor, ousting #1 seed Sparty in the Regional Semis in ’12.
Pitino is 52-17 (75%) in the Dance. Izzo is 44-16 (73%) in the tourney.
Other similarities, frankly the more important ones which will affect today’s battle, are seasonal.
Louisville has three primary threats, three double figure scorers (on the entire season). Terry Rozier (17.2 ppg), Montrezl Harrell (15.7 ppg) and Wayne Blackshear (11.1 ppg).
Michigan State has three primary threats, three double figure scorers. Travis Trice (15.3 ppg), Denzel Valentine Jr. (14.3 ppg) and Branden Dawson (11.9 ppg).
Bench points are a different matter. Spartan reserves account for 26.3 ppg, while Louisville’s non-starters provide 13.4 ppg.2
Then there’s this tit for tat that is both historical and peculiar to today’s match.
In 2009, Izzo famously relied on former assistant/ then Marquette mentor Tom Crean, familiar with the Cards from league encounters, to help fashion a winning game strategy.
This year, Pitino has along as whisper counsel, son Richard, whose Golden Gophers upset the Spartans, as well as former sidekicks Ralph Willard and Kevin Keatts.
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The players and coaches of both schools are pleased as punch to be here, as are the respective green and red fan bases. A month ago, this Elite Eight matchup was a long shot.
“Giddy” is a word, Izzo acknowledged, described his temperament. Pitino appears ebullient.
Computing the numbers, then incorporating the eye test, these teams are as evenly matched as can be. Ken Pomeroy has Sparty ranked as the nations’s 15th best school (#13 on offense, #47 on defense), and U of L ranked one wafer thin spot behind at 16 (#64 on offense, #5 on defense). The Cardinals have won 7 of their last 9; Sparty 11 of 14.
I’m surprised Vegas didn’t post this game as a pick ’em. But, Michigan State was established as a 2 1/2 point favorite, and that line hasn’t moved.
Which means, I suppose, that U of L still has something to prove.
What I know is this. Win or lose, that Louisville is playing today is a real treat. As I wrote last time out, icing on the cake. They’re playing with house money. It’s all been gravy since the Northern Iowa W.
It’s lagniappe, a little something extra. A Sunday surprise treat that neither the Red & Black Faithful nor the Sparty nation ever saw coming.
— Seedy K