Looking back at the 2012-13 men’s basketball season

By on April 16, 2013

By Noah Allison–

The University of Louisville men’s basketball team has won its first national championship since 1986.

Two decades ago this city looked at Coach Pitino as an entirely different human being, maybe the worst kind: the head coach of the University of Kentucky. He won his first national championship in 1996 while coaching at UK. Now, almost 20 years later, he has become the first coach to win a national championship at two different schools and he has a more Louisville-friendly ring to start wearing around the city.
The University of Louisville went 35-5 and won its third national championship in school history in 2012-2013. Heading into the season there were expectations as there always are in this city. Even though they had come off  a Final Four loss the season prior, not many were thinking about Louisville outside the heart of basketball country.

Pitino didn’t have any of the “top” freshmen in the nation joining the team. He didn’t have “the top player in the country” that everyone was so excited to see. No, Louisville sat comfortably at their preseason No. 2 ranking while all the attention went to No. 3 Kentucky, and Nerlens Noel, and No. 1 Indiana and Cody Zeller. Though, neither of those two players were the topics of discussion come April.
The season starting line-up consisted of senior guard Peyton Siva who broke a school record with 90 steals this year. Junior guard Russ Smith broke a school record by getting to the free throw line 276 times. Sophomore forward Chane Behanan won Dunk of the Year for what he did to the poor fellow up at DePaul and sophomore forward Wayne Blackshear had 45 three-pointers and 122 rebounds. Junior center Gorgui Dieng, with his team-high of 310 rebounds, took a stab at breaking his own shot block record of 128. He missed a month due to a broken wrist, holding him to just 83.

This team hit the season rolling; their identity was clear: they weren’t a team that was going to out score you, they weren’t going to slow the pace and wait until the end of the shot clock. They were quite the opposite. The Cardinals  were all defense and all too athletic. Stats don’t do them justice; this team was one of the greatest defenses in college basketball history. The Cardinals won the national championship because they were at any moment of the season able to impose their will on the opposition.

They forced 18.3 turnovers a game with a turnover margin of +5.9. When they needed to turn the ball over — it didn’t matter who the competition — the ball was turned over. They set a tournament record with 20 steals in the first round against North Carolina A&T and they stole the ball 10 times from Coach K’s Duke team in the Final Four. It truly was something special to watch the defense in person. They had 10.8 steals a game and had 430 on the season, plus168 blocked shots and hundreds of deflections. In the first round of the Big East Tournament against Villanova, they had 58 deflections.

Every team had to be worried about playing Louisville, because when it came down to the end of the game, it was opposition that were holding their knees, giving up easy points and missing free throws from  exhaustion.

A deep rotation of talented back-ups that could be starting elsewhere was the key to the success. The up-tempo play and constant pressure could lead to exhaustion or more so foul trouble for Louisville, but important players like sophomore guard Kevin Ware, senior center Stephan Van Treese, freshman forward Montrezl Harrel and junior forward Luke Hancock came in periodically throughout the season and did more than their part to help ensure a Cardinal victory. Hancock came in off the bench to be named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player for his 42 points and eight three-pointers  that he made in the two biggest games of his life. Harrel led the team with 20 points and seven rebounds in the 16-point comeback against Syracuse to win the last Big East Tournament.

Van Treese came gave priceless contribution in every game as Dieng’s trusted back-up. Kevin Ware’s sturdy play as the third guard was nothing compared to the strength and inspiration he displayed after breaking his leg in the Elite Eight victory over Duke. This team wouldn’t have won if Ware hadn’t  focused the team on going back and winning despite the bone sticking six inches out of his skin. The Cardinals won it for Ware and he was the last to cut the nets down in Atlanta.

The defensive effort is what led to the offensive game plan. Most  people would have guessed the game plan was to give Russ Smith the ball and see what happens. Smith averaged 19 points a game and led the Cardinals in scoring in 26 of the 40 games played. His highest was 31 points against Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen victory. He scored at least 20 in every game of the tournament except for the national championship. Smith had 134 points in the six games of the tournament and 614 in the season before that. He also had 116 assists with 83 steals. But Smith’s contributions to the team were only half of the work done by the best backcourt in the country.

On his other side was senior guard Peyton Siva, who along with Billy Donovan is one of the two best players Pitino has ever coached. The Seattle native was the unquestioned leader of this team, and it was his constant pursuit of perfection that had his team cut down the nets at the end of the year. Siva all around did what his team needed him to do; he led them with 228 assists, 90 steals and 401 points. In the national championship game, he had 18 points, four steals and five assists.

The starting frontcourt of Dieng and Behanan combined for 564 rebounds with 821 coming from the other 12 players. Defense wins championships. Rebounds win championships. Free throws win championships. And the Cardinals won the championship.

Rick Pitino had a special group of guys this year, not egos, but characters. He had a lightning-quick scorer from Brooklyn, a suave Seattle Samoan who’s priorities were God first and the team. He had a Virginia mountain man who knocked down shots and whose quiet strength helped  Kevin Ware through the scariest moment of his life. And of course, he had the world’s most loveable African giant, the boy from Senegal who leaves as a man and whose life experiences outlook on  kept everything in perspective.

This was a special team, and this was a special year. The city of Louisville has only seen two men coaching their basketball team in the last 42 years. They’ve also seen both of those men have Louisville on top of the world, and until that first whistle of the 2013-2014 season, on top of the world is where Louisville is going to stay.

sports@louisvillecardinal.com
Photo by Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal

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