I apologize for the delay in getting this post up. I spent my four-hour drive back to Maine processing my experience on Saturday night and trying to wrap my head around this team’s accomplishment.
Four wins in four days. Three avenged losses. Two wins over ranked teams. One dominant leader emerging from a team that lacked identity all season.
On Saturday night, the Louisville Cardinals defeated Cincinnati, 50-44, to claim the title of Big East Tournament champions.
The enormity of the win didn’t really occur to me until the text messages started pouring in on our way out of the Garden. Having grown up in the era of nationally televised events, color commentary and instant replay (“brought to you by corporate partner X”), I’m accustomed to this kind of spectacle being accompanied by inspirational music and proclamations of its import.
But when the buzzer sounded in Madison Square Garden, there were no carefully edited slow motion shots of Terrence Williams hoisting the trophy to be found––just a spontaneous moment of raw emotion unfolding approximately three miles beneath us on the court. Peyton Siva flew across the court, pointing to the sky, as the entire team converged at the free throw line in a leaping mass of bodies. The scene was fleeting, ephemeral, and presented without commentary in our empty 400 section. Not having the false immediacy of television made it feel more authentic, somehow.
We’ve all heard the truism that winning cures everything, but it was obvious to anyone in that arena on Saturday night that these players genuinely like and trust each other. It’s hard to believe this is the same team whose chemistry issues were on stark display in the January Providence blowout.
The single biggest reason for this new cohesion is the reemergence of Peyton Siva as a dominant player and vocal leader. It seems his willingness to assume a more purposeful attitude, in addition to the development of a steady seven-man rotation, helped define everyone else’s role in the offense last week. The once hesitant, self-conscious player who would shy away from wide-open jump shots during parts of this season transformed himself into the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. From watching the post-game press conference you could sense the relief in Kyle Kuric’s voice when he said Siva had “stepped into the role that [they] needed him to play.” I suspect Louisville’s quiet seniors and the eager Russ Smith will benefit from not being expected to carry the team on their backs any longer.
All year, the style and complexion of this Cardinals team seemed to shift radically based on personnel and available depth. For the first time all season, Louisville seems to have a clear identity and––to borrow a term from Charlie Strong––a “face of the program” heading into the NCAA tournament. While this squad doesn’t have the same talent in its starting five as the ’09 Big East champions, it’s gained a hunger and humility that seemed noticeably absent from that team in the days before its lose to Michigan State. That collective determination may be its biggest asset heading into their second round game on Thursday.