Louisville’s roller coaster season on the way up
When the Cardinals blew a 16-point lead in a 74-63 loss at Marquette on Jan. 16, their season appeared to be in shambles. It was their fifth loss in seven games after starting the year 12-0 and rising as high as No. 4 in the polls.
Junior guard Peyton Siva’s decline had reached its low point, scoring just two points on 1-of-4 shooting with three turnovers in 37 minutes. Sophomore guard Russ Smith took 20 shots in Louisville’s embarrassing slide against the Golden Eagles.
Since that day, the Cardinals (20-6) have won six of seven games, with their only loss coming at home against Syracuse last night. Louisville touts impressive wins at Pittsburgh and West Virginia during that six-game stretch and has righted the ship in the still wide-open Big East race for second place.
The much-anticipated debut of freshman guard Wayne Blackshear, who missed the team’s first 24 games, seemed to energize Louisville in its win over the Mountaineers in Morgantown, W.V., on Saturday.
The Cardinals have experienced their fair share of devastating injuries this year — junior guard Mike Marra and junior forward Rakeem Buckles each suffered season-ending ACL injuries — but the Cardinals currently sit in sixth place in the Big East at 8-5, just a half game behind South Florida.
With a favorable schedule remaining — aside from a road contest at Syracuse on Mar. 3 — it is conceivable that Louisville could finish the conference portion of the season at 12-6 and earn the last double-bye in the Big East Championship Tournament.
Connecticut, Cincinnati find themselves squarely on the bubble
There is no way this should be happening. Two teams with exceptional talent, experience and savvy coaches should not have to play their last six games fearing that they won’t make the NCAA Tournament with a few more slip-ups.
But that is exactly where the Bearcats and Huskies find themselves after both teams lost on Saturday. Cincinnati got hammered by Marquette 95-78 while Connecticut got blitzed by Syracuse 85-67 after never showing up against Louisville last Monday.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s revered “Bracketologist,” has the Bearcats as one of the last four teams to gain berth in the tournament after this weekend. Cincinnati has lost four of its last six games, including a head-scratching defeat at Rutgers on Jan. 28.
This is a team that was 15-4 after a 70-67 win at Connecticut on Jan. 18 and has five upperclassmen that play at least 12.1 minutes per game.
The Huskies’ decline is even more puzzling. Common sense predicted that Connecticut would turn the corner following the return of freshman guard Ryan Boatright on Jan. 29. Since Boatright’s return, however, the Huskies are 1-4, with their only win coming at home against Seton Hall.
While they have played without coach Jim Calhoun for the last three games, there is no logical reason why Connecticut should be 5-7 in the Big East and in 10th place, behind teams like South Florida and Seton Hall.
If Connecticut stumbles at home against DePaul on Wednesday, consider the Huskies — whose best win may be a neutral site win in overtime against Florida State on Nov. 26 — gone from the NCAA Tournament for the time being.
Player of the week
Jerian Grant, sophomore guard, Notre Dame
Grant scored 12 critical points in the Fighting Irish’s 55-51 win at West Virginia on Wednesday, before exploding for a career-high 22 points in Notre Dame’s 84-76 win over DePaul on Saturday, the Fighting Irish’s sixth win in a row. Grant also dished out five assists in the win over the Blue Demons and shot 6-of-10 from the field and 8-of-8 from the free throw line.
Game of the week
Notre Dame at Villanova, Feb. 18
The Fighting Irish, winners of six straight, will first have to get past a home game against Rutgers on Wednesday. If Notre Dame can get past the Scarlet Knights, it has a chance to pull ahead of Marquette for second place in the conference standings with a win.
The Wildcats are in the midst of a rebuilding year but are still 9-3 at home, with wins over Seton Hall and Providence in the last few weeks. Villanova travels to South Florida on Wednesday before hosting the Fighting Irish.