Russ Smith made his case as the best player in the AAC as Louisville won the league tournament.
***2014 Louisville AAC Championship Video by Steve Andress - CLICK HERE***
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WDRB) – The University of Louisville basketball team came to the FedEx Forum this weekend and gave the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee something to think about.
Actually, that's not true. The Cards gave the committee a legal pad lined with items to think about, and then U of L coach Rick Pitino made the conversation even more stimulating. Never mind the three- or two-seeds that most analysts are projecting for the Cardinals. Pitino says that a one-seed is in order.
"I judge it from the eye test," Pitino said. "Now understand something, every analyst has an agenda, every coach has an agenda.
"I think it was because I was there at SMU in the ugliest environment in 39 years. I was there in Cincinnati in the most hostile environment. I've been there with a run through March. I know what the guys have been through.
"Do I think we should be? Yes. Do I think we will be? No."
Who's playing better than Louisville (29-5) right now?
It's a short list.
The latest exclamation point was Louisville's 71-61 victory over Connecticut Saturday evening in the championship game of the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
Interpret this any way you'd like, but the Cards followed the same script they used last season: Pitino told his players not to cut down the nets after this championship victory.
"After the Final Four (in 2012), I wanted the guys to realize there's only one important thing," Pitino said. "That's the whole thing."
"As I was walking out on the floor, a guy tried to hand me some scissors," said U of L forward Luke Hancock. "I looked at him like he was crazy. We don't cut down conference championship nets. We have bigger goals."
But don't gloss over what this team has achieved down the stretch.
That's five straight victories for the Cardinals by an average of nearly 30 points -- three against Top 25 teams. Mark it down as their 12th win in their last 13 games, too. They won a share of the AAC regular-season title as well as the league tournament.
They've given the Huskies three of their eight defeats. Not only are the Cards the only team to beat UConn by double figures, they've done that three times.
As I said last week, after Louisville beat the Huskies 81-48, Connecticut is not a chump program. The Cards and Huskies played 120 minutes this season. UConn led for roughly 68 seconds in those three games.
Ranked fifth in both human polls before the week began, Rick Pitino's team is certain to be ranked at least third after the next vote on Monday, considering the losses Villanova and Arizona took this week. They're already ranked second in two national computer polls.
Overall strength of schedule will keep Louisville off the top seed line. But it won't keep many from predicting another deep NCAA run by Pitino's team. "Louisville is playing great basketball right now," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said.
The tournament showed why Louisville has been playing its best basketball over the last month. A different player dominated each session.
On Thursday, as Louisville rolled Rutgers, it was Chris Jones, who scored 18. On Friday, as they handled Houston, Russ Smith scored 42 – and he could have had 50.
On Saturday it was Smith (19), Jones (11) and Montrezl Harrell. Especially Harrell, who led U of L with 22 and 11 rebounds. All three made the all-tournament team. Smith was named the Most Outstanding Player.
"Everybody gets a chance to flourish," Smith said.
Harrell has been making a nightly appearance on ESPN's SportsCenter. Put the ball near the rim. Harrell will grab it. Harrell will dunk it. And Harrell will make a defender look helpless while he does it.
But Harrell did more than that Saturday. He made a 16-foot jumper. Connecticut did not believe that Harrell could make another. So he did.
For most of the first half, it was difficult to believe these were the same two teams that had played seven days earlier and Louisville had won by 33 points on Senior Day at the KFC Yum! Center.
That game was over after about 18 seconds. This one had drama for about 18 minutes.
Actually the play that ended the drama was the final play of the first half. Down 12, Connecticut did the smart thing and played for the final shot. Ollie put the ball in the hands of Shabazz Napier. He is a first-team all-American. He was also voted the Most Outstanding Player in the league.
Russ Smith did not care. As soon as Napier crossed mid court, Smith covered him as thoroughly as syrup on a stack of pancakes. He knocked the ball away. Terry Rozier grabbed it, danced down the court and scored.
Don't forget to credit Pitino. He's now won 12 conference tournament championships in 25 events, including three straight. Add the AAC to the Big East, SEC, Conference USA and ECAC to the league tournaments that he has won – with a 79 percent winning percentage in conference tournament games.
Now the Cards wait until 6 p.m. (EDT) Sunday for the NCAA Tournament draw. Most bracket projections have them a number three seed, but they've been listed as high as a two as well a four or five seed.
They'll try to reach the NCAA Final Four in three consecutive seasons for the first time in school history and also try to become the Division I men's team to defend its championship since Florida repeated in 2006-07. Overall, the Cards have won 21 of their last 22 post-season games.
"They won the championship last year and they went to the Final Four the year before," Ollie said. "They've got pretty much their whole team back. They're an experience bunch, they play hard and they're well coached."