Louisville very much looking like it can defend its national title

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

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OK, Louisville, we're all paying attention now.

The Cardinals have closed out their regular season by winning nine of 10, landing at 26-5, which is the same end-of-season record last year's Louisville team took into its league tournament.

Rick Pitino's players swallowed UConn whole, winning 81-48 and looking very much like a team entering that ever-coveted "peaking at the right time" phase of the timetable.

By no means is this Louisville group flying under the radar now, but for a time it certainly was from a national standpoint. For a long time, this wasn't considered a team worthy of defending its national championship. Yes, remember, this program is currently the title-holder in the sport. And although point guard Peyton Siva is gone and rim protector Gorgui Dieng is also earning an NBA paycheck, the Cardinals have the capability to make a run at the rare achievement of winning consecutive national titles.

Favored? No. That'd be Florida. But Louisville's in the conversation, and that alone is always exceptional.

But why haven't we considered this a decent possibility for most of the season? Look to the two aforementioned departures and pair that with the dismissal of starting power forward Chane Behanan from earlier this season, and you've got a lot of the answer.

Yet not all of it. Because of that soft non-conference schedule (298th), a lot of people -- me included -- eagerly dismissed Louisville earlier this season as a top-10 team.

You look back on the schedule, though, and it's unfounded, really. The Cardinals began the season 11-1, the only loss coming to a North Carolina team that's beaten plenty of good squads this season and very much has a Final Four darkhorse look.

C (USATSI)
Montrezl Harrell had a team-best 20 points in addition to 11 boards Saturday. (USATSI)

Then the Cards fell at Kentucky and home to Memphis three games later. A 13-3 team without a marquee win against a forecasted NCAA Tournament team. But while the losses came, the team was still romping the afterthoughts. That counts for something, yeah? Sure it does. And good wins were on the way, too.

For some groups, we need a full season to play out to see how good or bad the losses really look with a wider frame. Louisville qualifies as that. When a team is treating UConn the way it treated UMKC and Hofstra, OK, now let's all stand up and start giving some due.

And now, as Louisville enters the American Athletic Conference tournament as a No. 2 seed (it lost a tiebreaking coin flip to Cincinnati Saturday afternoon, so the seed is meaningless regarding Louisville's league play vs. Cincy's), we have to think this team is among the most dangerous in getting back to the Final Four.

Montrezl Harrell's been a revelation, playing up to his lottery-pick potential. He was a fiend again Saturday, upping his recent averages:

Russ Smith picked Senior Day to distribute, opting to show he can lead the team to an easy win over a futur single-digit NCAA tournament seed by feeding 13 assists to his teammates -- and taking only two shots. It was a really impressive display from one of the most valuable players in the country.

Pitino, who's won 25 or more games eight of the past 12 seasons at Louisville, certainly has a team he loves, trusts and has shown a persistence in living up to the standard of many of those previous Cards clubs that played well well into March.

 
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