As Louisville spent the early part of the season beating up on inferior competition and booting junior starting forward Chane Behanan from the team, not many gave the Cardinals a chance to do much in March.
Louisville lost to North Carolina, Kentucky and Memphis in the early part of the season and the Cardinals didn’t beat a team that was ranked in the top 25 until its February 22nd road win over then-No. 7 Cincinnati.
But after the No. 11 Cardinals’ 81-48 thrashing of No. 19 UConn on Saturday, its time to start taking Louisville seriously as a threat to repeat as national champions. Louisville now owns a season sweep over UConn and SMU in American Athletic Conference play and a road win over Cincinnati since falling to the Bearcats at home in the earlier part of the conference slate.
Louisville (26-5, 15-3) is a different and more focused team without Behanan around as a distraction and the play of sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell has been a big reason why. The 6-foot-8 sophomore had 21 points and 10 rebounds in the win over UConn (24-7, 12-6) on Saturday and over his last five games — four of them against ranked opponents — Harrell is averaging 21.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. To put that in perspective, Harrell is averaging 13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game on the season. Harrell appears to be peaking late in the season much like he did off-the-bench during Louisville’s title run last season. Only now, he’s a main option for the Cardinals with Behanan no longer on the roster and Georgi Dieng in the NBA.
The dominant play of Harrell on the inside also eases the burden placed on Louisville’s deep and talented stable of guards. Russ Smith is averaging 18 points a game by only attempted two field goals in 30 minutes of action on Saturday and was 1-for-3 from the free throw line as he instead dished out 13 assists. Luke Hancock (16 points), Wayne Blackshear (11 points) and Chris Jones (10 points) all contributed solid, but not outstanding efforts, and the Cardinals still won by 33 over a top-20 team.
And the Cardinal defense was fantastic on Saturday, as they held UConn leading scorers Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright to a combined 14 points on 4-for-24 shooting from the field. The UConn backcourt duo usually averages just over 30 points per game.
Louisville has won nine out of 10 games entering the AAC Tournament in Memphis and as a No. 2 seed the Cardinals won’t have to potentially face the No. 5 seed Tigers in their home city. If Harrell continues to play like this, Louisville has enough talent at guard around him to make a serious run at a third consecutive Final Four.