The Louisville Cardinals under coach Rick Pitino were crowned champions of March Madness last year with an 82-76 win over Michigan. Louisville destroyed #2 seed Duke (85-63) to advance to the Final Four before surviving the upstart Wichita State Shockers on way to the school’s third NCAA title. Defending their title won’t be easy this year, but Louisville is poised to make a bid to repeat.
Louisville will seek a third straight trip to the Final Four ranked fifth in the nation in the AP poll after finishing the 2013-14 regular season tied with the Cincinnati Bearcats atop the American Athletic Conference (AAC). Louisville’s 29-5 regular season record includes five losses between three and nine points to the likes of the North Carolina Tar Heels, the Kentucky Wildcats, Cincinnati and the Memphis Tigers (twice).
The AAC tournament should serve as a rigorous NCAA tourney tune-up for Louisville with conference competition all gunning to make their statement to the NCAA tournament selection committee with a conference tourney upset win over the Cardinals.
Likewise, Louisville will be under pressure to deliver a strong showing in their conference tourney to impress the selection committee enough to warrant the highest seed possible when March Madness begins in earnest. Louisville will need that high seed to advance to a Final Four that could include the following three teams who would all be playing with a chip on their collective shoulder should they meet Louisville in the Final Four.
The bond between Louisville coach Pitino and Florida coach Billy Donovan goes back to the time when then-Providence coach Pitino led his team with then-point guard Donovan to a Final Four appearance in 1987. Donovan would later join Pitino’s coaching staff at Kentucky before embarking upon his own head coaching career.
Pitino and Donovan faced each in the Elite 8 n 2012 with much fanfare attending their unique basketball relationship, as detailed by Yahoo! Sports Jeff Eisenberg in “Twenty-five years after Providence Final Four run, the Donovan-Pitino bond is stronger than ever”. Pitino won that matchup, but a rematch in the 2014 tourney would most likely favor Florida
Heading into the 2014 NCAA tourney, Donovan has his Florida team ranked #1 in the AP poll at the end of the regular season. Florida finished with 23 straight wins and a 29-2 record, Donovan has his team poised to make its best tournament run since Florida won back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007.
Like Donovan, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin served as an assistant to Pitino (at Louisville for two seasons in 2002 and 2003). Unlike Donovan, Cronin has faced Pitino twice a year as conference rivals since Cronin took over Cincinnati in 2006.
Cronin’s Bearcats handed Louisville one of their five losses this season and know the Louisville team as well any other team should fate put the two together in a Final Four showdown. Cincinnati was unceremoniously bounced early out of the tourney last year by the Creighton Blue Jays but advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2012 before losing to in-state nemesis, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Cronin and his Bearcats’ teams have yet to fully establish their NCAA clout, but the 2013-2014 team features a trio of standout seniors in Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles, who are all playing at the top of their games heading into March Madness.
Wichita State Shockers
Wichita State nearly shocked the college basketball world last year as a #9 seed out of the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference (MVC). The Shockers advanced all the way to the Final Four before losing a grueling game against Louisville 72-68 to end their remarkable season.
Now, Wichita State is positioned to have a less strenuous time advancing as a #1 seed because the Shockers finished the season undefeated (34-0), including their conference tournament. While Wichita State may not receive the true measure of respect deserved yet due to the lesser quality MVC schedule the team plays, the undefeated record and a chance to improve upon last year’s trip to the Final Four will have the Shockers under head coach Gregg Marshall ready to prove the team and the program belong with the biggest names of march Madness, including defending champs Louisville.