Wayne Blackshear scored a career high 23 points as Louisville rolled Houston, 91-52 Thursday night.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The college basketball season has crackled into the middle of January. You know what that means? The race is on to be the first to predict what will happen April 7 in suburban Dallas.
Which team will win the 2014 NCAA championship?
Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated stepped forward to narrow the list of serious contenders to eight teams this week. Allow me to call the roll, adding minor commentary:
Arizona, Syracuse, Michigan State and Florida? Expected, expected, expected and not really surprising.
Kentucky and Kansas? Including these two teams, both currently ranked outside the Top 10, requires a strong belief that talented freshmen will stop playing like freshmen. Certainly possible. It's happened before. But expect dissent.
Wisconsin? The Badgers likely belong, despite how ordinary Indiana made Bo Ryan's team look on defense Tuesday -- and Wisconsin's proven history of stalling in the Sweet Sixteen under Ryan.
Iowa State? Sorry. No can do. The last time I checked the Cyclones had a solid shot to extend their losing streak to three at Texas Saturday. Simply typing Iowa State and Final Four in the same sentence made my laptop stall.
Guess which team Winn does not expect to win six NCAA games? (The link to Winn's story.) The Louisville team that moved to 15-3 by punishing Houston, 91-52, at the KFC Yum! Center Thursday night.
"I don't care," said Louisville senior Luke Hancock after I shared the news. "Couldn't care less."
After making five three-point shots and scoring a career-high 23 points while playing off the bench, Wayne Blackshear agreed with Hancock. "It's too soon for that," Blackshear said. "Look back to how we were playing a year ago."
Will do. On Jan. 16, 2013 Louisville was three days away from stumbling into a three-game losing streak against Syracuse, Villanova and Georgetown. That's when everybody started rolling out predictions that the Cardinals were not going to win a national championship.
"Last year turned out pretty good," Blackshear said, smiling.
One 39-point victory over a Houston team that did not play 39 seconds of defense is not a reason to predict greatness for this Louisville team. The Cardinals need more games like this from Blackshear. They also need centers Mangok Mathiang and Stephan Van Treese to consistently deliver the eight points and 12 rebounds they contributed against the sagging Cougars.
Louisville needs to back this performance up with another solid show at Connecticut Saturday night – with the ESPN College GameDay crew in Storrs.
If Rick Pitino saw anything he did not like, he did not share the news. Besides, Pitino was in a hurry to get to a TV to watch his son, Richard, coach Minnesota to an impressive 63-53 win over Ohio State.
"You know," Pitino said, "I can't find a fault, period."
So what inspired Winn to cut the Cardinals from his chosen eight? I'll let him explain:
"The Cardinals could burn the Magic Eight by staging a late revival a la what they did in March 2012, but they've regressed a lot from last season's efficiency levels, and I fear their rebounding and interior D isn't good enough to repeat."
Winn is referring to Louisville's offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, according to Ken Pomeroy's computer formulas, the ones that measure how many points a team scores and allows per 100 possessions.
Two seasons ago, when Louisville lost nine regular-season games and then rallied to make the Final Four, the Cardinals ranked first nationally in defensive efficiency and 116th on offense. The 2013 national champions were a considerably more balanced group, ranking fourth on offense, third on defense.
This season? They're 28th on offense but 13th on defense. There is work to do – on both ends to be a legitimate contender.
The headlines from the Houston victory will focus on Louisville's season-best three-point shooting. Not surprising when a team makes 15 of 28 threes – with six different guys making them.
Here is a more meaningful number: Louisville had 23 assists that led to 34 field goals. Freshman Terry Rozier, subbing for the injured Chris Jones, was terrific, delivering eight assists and only one turnover in 26 effective minutes.
"The ball movement was really good today," guard Tim Henderson said. "When we move the ball and get the whole team involved, everybody can score. When we pass the ball and get movement, that's when we're at our best."
"I think the sky's the limit," Hancock said. "I really think that if we rebound and get on the same page defensively, make our rotations, a couple more things, we can be a great team."
Even if some have already crossed the Cardinals off their list of national contenders.