Reality first struck as I sat in the ginormous media room of Lucas Oil Stadium before the Cardinals ’09 matchup with Sparty for a trip to the Final Four in Motown.
Expectations soaring after #1 seed U of L drew and quartered Arizona by 39 in the Sweet Sixteen, and with my belly full of Shapiro’s pastrami, potato latkes and carrot cake, I poured over Michigan State data for the first time.
My confidence quickly abated. I recall reading the numbers, looking up, staring into the middle distance, and thinking, “Louisville could lose this. Izzo’s team is good.”
And damned if I wasn’t prescient. The truth struck with terrible swift sword.
Michigan State 64, Louisville 52.
Louisville’s season and 13 game winning skein and strangest of seasons had fizzed out.
Other than stifling D which held the Cards to zero fastbreak points, Sparty’s most lethal weapon was generally unheralded big Goren Sutton, who tallied 19, grabbed 10 rebounds, and schooled the Cards in the middle.
This was eerily similar to U of L’s previous defeat. Which came on February 12 in South Bend. The Irish were mired in a 7 game losing streak, yet throttled Louisville 90-57, behind their star big Luke Harangody’s 32 points and 17 boards.
Yet, between those last two Ls of the 31-6 campaign, the Cardinals were champagne. The thirteen victories included a Big East tourney crown, and Ws over three ranked foes. (Louisville had already beaten four other ranked schools earlier in the campaign. Their only loss to a ranked school before that to the Spartans was a 17 point beatdown at home to then #1 UConn on February 12.)
It’s only in hindsight that the reasons for this cockamamie season makes some sense.
But, before we get to that, a quick look at the roller coaster ride.
After two easy Ws to open up, with heralded rookie Samardo Samuels whetting the faithful’s appetite for a third national title with a first year pivot, the freshman failed to show in Nashville. A 6-5 Hilltopper named Stephffon Pettigrew manhanlded SS into submission and Western Kentucky upset the Cardinals by 14, 68-54.
U of L played a bit better before the turn of the calendar, though they fell to Minnesota before Christmas, and had a not so happy New Year’s Eve, being upset by Vegas at home.
A 74-71 W over UK kicked off an undefeated January that included four Top Twenty wins.
That victory over the Wildcats proved to be a harbinger that the season might not end as well as expected. Yes, Edgar Sosa exited Rick Pitino’s and U of L fans’ doghouse, when he drained a long trey with two seconds to play for the win. (He’d tom-tommed out the shot and game clocks until he fired away, thereby fostering — in my mind at least — what I’ve coined the “Sosa Play.”)
What is oft forgotten about that win is how U of L pissed away a seven point lead in the final minute. Louisville’s meltdown included two Earl Clark turnovers, and five FTs and a layup by Jodie Meeks to knot the tilt at 71. Sosa’s triple glossed over a serious Cardinal collapse.
(Personal aside. My crew had plans to hook up after the game for dinner. When the rest of us got to the Grape Leaf, long time Cardinal faithful Dough and Mae were already there. Turns out they were so disgusted by U of L’s disintegration, they left the game early, and didn’t even know Louisville had won.)
(Sorta Personal Aside, Part Deux. Research for this article has revealed that said UK game was the first attended in person by Glorious Editor, Mr. Rutherford.)
So, yeah, after those two early February no shows, when the coach used the word “humiliated” often, U of L got a hum going.
Until State spoiled the party.
Which brings us to the equivalent of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story.”
It was only after the fact the public understood why Rick Pitino probably wasn’t totally present psychologically from the end of the regular season on. He’d received an extortion threat from Karen Sypher, arising out of his extramarital tryst at Porcini’s several years earlier.
Plus the leaders of that squad, the team captains, were the supposedly mature, stable and later impresario of ladies of the night, Andre McGee; as well as the never mature or stable but ever fractious Terrance Williams.
Which is not to mention the latter’s long rumored feud with starting guard Jerry Smith, which may or may not still have been lingering on or off the court.
There was also a fascinating moment during Rick Pitino’s press conference after the Cardinals beat Siena in the Round of 32 in Dayton. Among those in attendance was Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan.
It has never been a secret that Pitino is, to say the least, less than well liked in Beantown. After kicking Red Auerbach out of his office, he went 102-146, and never made it to the playoffs.
Anyway, Ryan asked an oddly detached Pitino a softball question, which Pitino refused to answer as icicles formed on the walls and ceiling. It never became clear until those later personal revelations what was going on with the Cards coach.
Anyway . . .
. . . the 2008-09 Louisville Cardinals were easily among the most talented of the Pitino Era. But there was a lack of cohesion, a lack of maturity, a lack of character.
Lots of Top Twenty Ws. Yet those must be juxtaposed with four double digit losses, one by 33 points to an unranked team.
That talent alone was almost enough to carry the squad to the Final Four. But the underlying flaws and personalities finally did in this cockamamie edition of the University of Louisville hoops.
— Seedy K
(Sources: My memory. U of L Basketball Media Guide. UPI. ESPN.com. CardChronicle.com.)