INDIANAPOLIS (WDRB) -- There has been no dominant team in college basketball this season. But for the last several weeks, no one has come close to the University of Louisville.
A five-point win over Syracuse was the last time an opponent came within single digits of the Cardinals, and that was back on March 5. In fact, that's the only time an opponent has come within single digits since the Cards five-overtime heartbreaker to Notre Dame on February 9.
Since the first of February, those are the only two single-digit games the Cardinals have played.
It's an impressive run, but not exactly out of character for this U of L team. It has played 36 games this season. It has held a double-digit lead in 29 of those, and won 23 of them by double digits.
Of course, the Cards would like to continue that trend. They've won two NCAA Tournament games by an average of 32.5 points per game.
"We prepare for every game like it's going to be close," senior guard Peyton Siva said after the Cards beat Colorado State by 26. "We know we're playing really good teams, and we played really good teams in the Big East. You know good teams are going to make a run. But we've gotten better at limiting those runs and we've gotten smarter at playing with a lead. Russ (Smith) is playing a lot better and is focused in on scouting. I'm playing a lot smarter by not getting in foul trouble. Kevin Ware is giving us a big lift. We're all just playing smarter."
That last part is key. Look through the list of victories this season and there are plenty in which the Cards held double-digits leads but lost them, particularly wins over Northern Iowa (18-point lead, 5-point win), Kentucky (17-point lead, 3-point win) and Pittsburgh (12-point lead, 3-point win.)
Even in some losses, the Cards dropped leads. They were up eight with 16 minutes to play and up five late before losing at home to Syracuse. And they were up eight in the final two minutes in the overtime loss at Notre Dame.
U of L coach Rick Pitino says it's no coincidence that the Cardinals haven't played with fire quite as often since that Notre Dame loss. He called that game "a watershed moment" for his team.
"I said guys, 'You can't play as hard as you're playing and give a game away because mentally you break down,'" Pitino said. "I told them, you've got to be every bit as good mentally as you are physically. In that game you played extremely hard, but you didn't have the mental capacity to win. Since then, all the guys have gotten better mentally. Physically, all season, from the first day of practice, they've given me their heart and soul. They've just gotten better mentally."
Still, the question facing the Cards as they enter Sweet 16 play is how will they fare if the games tighten up? This team, for all it has done, is 0-4 if it is tied or trails with five minutes remaining.
A couple of caveats. The Cards could, of course, keep cruising. Pitino's track record in the Sweet 16, in fact, suggests they might. His averaging winning margin in 10 Sweet 16 games is 22 points.
Another: It's not like they haven't been threatened in three weeks. Down by 16 to Syracuse in the Big East championship, they calmly regrouped, executed on offense, and turned the tables on the Orange to win by 17.
Several players after that game said that the experience of being down to Florida in the Elite Eight last season helped keep them calm when the same thing happened in the Big East championship game. That's important to note.
But will this team fare better if it needs to craft a pressure-packed endgame than it did in losses to Syracuse, Villanova or Georgetown?
There are some signs that it would.
1). Free throws: The Cards are shooting 72.4 percent from the line in the postseason, despite a poor free-throw shooting game against North Carolina A&T.
2). Postseason experience. This is a tournament-tested team, one that has won 13 of its past 14 postseason games. Smith said Thursday, "We've been through this. I think that makes a difference, but only if we're sharp mentally and execute."
3). Expecting nail-biters. Pitino said he has his team convinced it is in for a down-to-the wire game every night out.
"I think this will be a very close game," Pitino said of Friday's game against Oregon. "Their talent's exceptional, they rebound great, they're great defensively. . . . That being said, we were getting our butts kicked by Syracuse in the first half at Madison Square Garden and we just came out and played terrific in the second half.
"So we expect to be in a close game every time out. If you speak to our team, I had them convinced North Carolina A&T (a 31-point win) -- that they brought in Jesse Jackson because they thought that they were winning. I had them convinced of that. So we play every game with great respect. They're a humble group, and we've just been able to pull away at the end of some games."
It sounds like a team that is dialed in. It's certainly one that is in tune with Pitino's message.
"We're ready for it to go to the wire every night," Smith said. "But what we're doing is not worrying about the score and playing full-out to the final buzzer every night. Then we'll see where things are."
Saturday, August 30 2014 3:51 PM EDT2014-08-30 19:51:46 GMT
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