By Sam Draut–
Despite having a men’s basketball tradition comparable to any program in the country, the University of Louisville received its first No. 1 ranking in a regular season poll in school history. Hours after the rankings were published, the Cardinals were tested with a conference road game against Connecticut. Louisville’s second half onslaught led to a 73-58 victory, putting the Cards at 16-1 overall and 4-0 in the Big East Conference.
Louisville fought through a difficult non-conference schedule; wins against Missouri, Memphis and Kentucky highlighted the bunch. With arguably the best defensive team in the country and a budding Player of the Year candidate in Russ Smith, the Cards have been thought to be one of the best teams in the country for months.
It took a Duke loss to conference rival N.C. State, an Ohio State victory over Michigan, and an Oregon upset of Arizona for Louisville to be cleared into the No. 1 spot in national media polls. To no one’s surprise, Louisville was ranked No. 1 on Week 11 men’s basketball rankings.
But is this a ranking Louisville wants to celebrate? Let us take a look back at the past four No. 1 ranked schools in Week 11 of the polls. Last year, Syracuse held the top spot in Week 11 and finished the year losing in the Elite Eight. In 2010-11, Ohio State also lost in the Elite Eight after ranking No. 1 in Week 11. In 2009-10, Texas held the top spot in Week 11, but was bounced in the first round. Wake Forest suffered the same fate, a first round loss, after ranking No. 1 in Week 11. Two Elite Eights and two first round exits, not exactly the finest ending from No. 1 teams in an early January poll.
It’s awfully early, but this Louisville team appears to be different than the previous No. 1s. The Card’s stout defense is creating nearly 20 turnovers a game and limiting teams to 56.4 points. The offense is cohesive enough to create points, while the defense can aid any scoring droughts.
Another key component to a promising team is a go-to player late in games. Peyton Siva off the high pick-and-roll and Russ Smith looking for buckets provide enough lethality for Louisville to feel comfortable playing a possession-by-possession end-of-game scenario.
With a program that only hangs banners for Final Fours and National Championships, a No. 1 ranking in January is merely talk for the media and fans. Louisville has always been a program built around postseason success; a season is not defined by games won in December and January, but instead by games played in March.
The 2011-12 team had a forgettable regular season, but reeled off eight straight in postseason play, winning the Big East Tournament and reaching the Final Four. The previous season, 2010-11, Louisville overachieved in the regular season and appeared in the Big East Tournament Championship game, but was bounced by 13-seed Morehead State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
As nice as a No. 1 ranking in January is, this Louisville team will be defined by where they stand on April 8, the day of the National Championship game, but until then, it’s nice to be number one.
Photo: Tricia Stern/The Louisville Cardinal