When you are the defending champions of any sports league, you are going to have a target on your back throughout the entire season. That is exactly what the Louisville Cardinals have had to deal with all year, and it doesn’t get any easier considering they are in one of the toughest conferences in basketball. Of the ten teams in the American Athletic Conference, five of them are ranked in the top 20 in the nation. To make things even more interesting for the Cardinals, the final two weeks of their schedule included the other four ranked teams in the AAC.
The #11 Cardinals played the #7 Cincinnati Bearcats on February 22. The game ended in a thrilling 58-57 win for Louisville, keeping both teams tied atop the AAC. And after a 20-point win over Temple, the Cardinals then got back on the road and headed to Memphis where they played the 20th ranked Tigers. In this one, Memphis was able to squeeze out a 72-66 win, giving the Cardinals their fifth loss on the season and their third in the conference.
Now Louisville sits at 24-5 overall and 13-3 in the conference. But they have a heck of a schedule in the final week of the season, in which they’ll be playing #18 SMU and #19 Connecticut this Wednesday and Saturday.
Louisville already beat Southern Methodist once this year in a 71-63 win on January 12th. However, that was only one of six losses that SMU has had on the season and the Mustangs find themselves currently just one game back in the AAC and ranked #18 in the country. SMU hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1993, so this has been a meaningful season for them as they hope to get a bid into the Big Dance.
As for the Huskies from Connecticut, they are no stranger to success and won the NCAA Championship two years ago as a member of the Big East. However, they haven’t had any problems adjusting to play in the AAC and have a record of 11-5 in the conference, which is good enough for fourth place and just two games back of Cincinnati and Louisville.
The irony for the Cardinals may be that their final game of the season will be against a Connecticut team that, despite winning it all in 2012, failed to advance from the first round in 2013. As a matter of fact, the last team to win back-to-back NCAA titles in basketball was the Florida Gators – who happen to currently be #1- in 2006 and 2007.
Louisville will have the deck stacked against them as they hope to repeat this year, and the road may be even tougher if they falter in the final week of the season. With such a tough schedule, one or two losses could be the difference between a potential three or four seed, and a seven or eight spot. They have the leadership of Russ Smith, who is a senior that played on the championship squad last year and leads the team with 17.8 points per game, and Montrezl Harrell, a sophomore from last year’s team as well. It also doesn’t hurt that they have Rick Petino as their coach, who knows how to get his guys to play well when they need it the most.
Maybe a surprise to some, the Cardinals are sitting at 11/1 favorites to win the NCAA Championship this year. That is sixth best in the nation, which isn’t bad for a team that is ranked #11 overall. However, with championship experience and leadership in the form of upper classman and one of the best coaches in the game, Louisville could easily repeat this year.
Keep an eye on how they do this week as games against two ranked teams will prove to be a real challenge and the perfect warm-up for the tournament.