Louisville’s run at back-to-back ends at the hands of rival Kentucky

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INDIANAPOLIS — Entering the 2014 NCAA Tournament many looked at the Midwest Regional as the bracket’s toughest challenge.

Unbeaten No. 1 seed Wichita State, No. 2 seed Michigan and No. 4 seed Louisville — the defending champion — all made the Final Four last year and talented No. 3 seed Duke and No. 8 seed Kentucky had enough firepower to make things interesting.

And that doesn’t even include No. 11 seed Tennessee, the team peaking at the right time of the season behind a talented inside-outside combination.

So as Louisville stared at that Midwest Regional as the trendy pick to make the Final Four, many wondered if they could get through what was looking similar to the World Cup’s “Group of Death.”

The Cardinals made it through the first two rounds unscathed but a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 8 seed Kentucky was a game that everyone in America wanted to see. Unfortunately, it didn’t go the way Louisville wanted it to go, as they fell to the rival Wildcats, 74-69, on Friday night to end its run of back-to-back Final Fours.

In the postgame locker room, a sullen Cardinals team didn’t blame anybody but themselves for the loss. The tears streaming down the faces of many of the players was noticeable. Chris Jones turned and faced a corner, unable to address the media as he held his face in his hands. Most players barely spoke above a whisper when addressing the media.

“I’m getting over it. As a man you have to move on from it,” senior guard Russ Smith said. “It sucks but there’s only 13 champions at the end of the year. Somebody has to lose, not everybody can win. We were among the last 16 teams and came up short.”

The Cardinals will stare in the mirror for a long time when they look back at Friday’s loss to Kentucky. Louisville led by seven with under five minutes left and Willie Cauley-Stein (ankle) and James Young (fouled out) were unable to return for Kentucky.

The champs had the upstart contender on the ropes and couldn’t finish them off.

“(I) told them before the game, you’ll get punched in the mouth and you’re going to taste blood. You’re going to fight or brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They never stopped playing,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.

Soon everything began to unravel as Kentucky continued to fight until the final whistle. Despite never leading since a 2-0 advantage in the game’s opening minute, the Wildcats took a 70-68 lead on Aaron Harrison’s go-ahead three-pointer with 39 seconds left. Kentucky led for 65 total seconds, but they’re the ones that will advance to face No. 2 seed Michigan in Sunday’s Elite 8.

“We had a chance to control the game. We didn’t. I didn’t,” Smith said. “I’ve got to be a man about that. And you have to respect the opponent you were playing against; they did a good job. Other than that, I just have to take it.”

Rebounding and free throws were the major difference in the game on Friday. Louisville went 13-for-23 from the free throw line while Kentucky went 22-for-27. The Wildcats held a 37-29 rebounding edge, which led to an 18-10 advantage in second-chance points.

“They out-rebounded us and we made a lot of mistakes down the stretch that we didn’t need to make,” Louisville freshman guard Terry Rozier said. “They beat us to the glass a lot.”

The magical two-year Final Four run is over for Louisville — and with it, the talk of a potential dynasty. But head coach Rick Pitino downplayed any talk of legacy after the game and tried to focus on the present.

“We try to be humble in victory and gracious in defeat. We’re going to be very gracious in this defeat because we’ve had a lot of celebrations, and it’s the end of an era for us, for a lot of us. So it’s something that we’re certainly going to miss,” Pitino said.

Losing against a rival like Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament might mean a lot to some players, but for Smith, his college career comes to an end after winning multiple conference titles and last year’s NCAA title. As much as this loss will sting, Smith, Luke Hancock and the rest of Louisville will have to move on.

“I don’t hold losses in, I don’t hold grudges, I don’t hate anybody, I don’t have a rival,” Smith said. “I’m a positive person and I’ll move on. At the end of the day, this was a loss for the rivalry of Louisville (and Kentucky). And I just empathize with the fans. I wish I could have given them the win. I’m so sorry. (I) could have done it for them; or for me. We lost to a great team. And I have that much respect for them. It’s just another loss for me and I have to move on.”

It might take Louisville awhile to move on from this loss, but the Cardinals had a tremendous three-year run that included a Final Four in 2012, a national title in 2013 and conference championships in two different leagues — the Big East and the American.

Next year, Louisville will move on to the ACC and Pitino will have to begin a new era after losing Smith, Hancock and senior Stephan Van Treese and potentially sophomore Montrezl Harrell to the NBA.

​”We’ve lost Gorgui, Peyton, and now we’re probably going to lose Russ, Luke, Montrezl, and VT. It’s the end of an era. And I as a coach certainly appreciate all their efforts,” Pitino said.

Washington’s Thybulle returning for senior season

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Matisse Thybulle will return to Washington for his senior season after contemplating declaring for the NBA draft following a junior campaign in which he was named the Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

“The NBA is really enticing and it was definitely something that I seriously considered when the season was over,” Thybulle told the Seattle Times. “I talked it over with my family and we came to the conclusion that it would be in my best interest to stay and get my degree (in communications) and grow as a basketball player and take this last year to mature and fine tune everything so I can be fully prepared to take that next step when it’s time.”

The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 11.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game last season. He shot 44.5 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from 3-point range.

“I talked to coach (Mike Hopkins) and he gave me some good advice that was honestly something that helped in the grand scheme of things,” Thybulle said. “He told me that if I do it (enter the draft), then I should be all in because that’s what I’m going to be up against is a whole bunch of guys fighting for their lives. He thought it would be a better idea for me to stay in school until I’m at that point.”

Washington is awaiting the decision of Noah Dickerson, who declared for the draft but has not hired an agent. The 6-foot-8 averaged 15.5 points and 8.4 rebounds last season.

Koby McEwen transferring to Marquette

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Steve Wojciechowski added a significant piece to his 2019-20 team over the weekend.

Koby McEwen announced his intention to transfer to Marquette from Utah State late Sunday evening.

“I would like to thank God, my family, inner circle and all the schools/coaches that recruited me during this process!” McEwen tweeted. “With that being said, I’m proud to announce that I’ll be furthering my college career at Marquette University.”

McEwen picked the Golden Eagles over fellow finalists Creighton and Grand Canyon after he decided to transfer when the Aggies announced South Dakota coach Craig Smith was taking over the program last month. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 15.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore.

After sitting out the upcoming season, McEwen will have to years of eligibility remaining. Marquette went 21-14 last season, but missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in Wojciechowski’s four years in Milwaukee.

Minnesota adds Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis

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Minnesota has added some depth for the future.

The Golden Gophers received a pledge from Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis over the weekend, giving him a guard with two seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2019-20.

Willis will sit out the upcoming season under NCAA transfer rules.

The 6-foot-4 guard played a limited role in two seasons in Nashville, never averaging more than 18. 5 minutes or 5.2 points per game. He scored in double figures in three games as a sophomore.

Willis was a top-150 prospect in the Class of 2016 coming out of Fayetteville, Ark. with offers from the likes of Tulsa, Rice and Dayton. Vandy and Minnesota were his two high-major offers.

After being ranked in the top-15, Minnesota was beset by injury and suspensions last season as they limped to the finish line in a 15-17 season that featured losses in 12 of its last 13 games.

Richard Pitino still has two available scholarships for the 2018-19 campaign.

Report: Quade Green returning to Kentucky

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John Calipari just landed a critical recruit for 2018-19, and he was already on the roster.

Quade Green, who averaged 25 minutes per game last season, is returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season, his mother told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday.

Given that six Wildcat players have entered the draft (Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hami Diallo are signing with agents), getting the 6-foot point guard back for a second season is a massive deal for Calipari and Co. The Wildcats have always been at their best under Calipari with returning players as the cornerstones of the roster with talented one-and-dones providing the extra boost. Getting one such returner at the point guard position is even more critical.

Green, who came to Kentucky as a five-star recruit last year, averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and a respectable 37.1 percent from 3-point range, an area where Kentucky continually needs help.

With Green back in the fold, Kentucky will now await the decisions of PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt, who are all going through the pre-draft process without hiring agents, which will potentially allow them to return to school and bolster a Kentucky roster has the look of a top-five team.

CBT Podcast: NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline: Winners, losers and who has the most on the line?

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The NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline came and went on Sunday night, meaning there are now roughly 60 college players that have signed with an agent and another 100 or so that have declared for the draft while retaining their college eligibility. Who were the winners? Who were the losers? Who has the most on the line? Sam Vecenie of the Game Theory podcast joined Rob Dauster to talk through all of it. The rundown:

OPEN: What do NBA teams value in players these days?

10:00: Villanova has more on the line during this testing the water process than anyone

19:00: Just how important was De’Andre Hunter’s decision to return to Virginia

25:25: Gonzaga getting Rui and Killian Tillie back makes them a title favorite

32:10: Nevada has a top ten season on the line with the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline

36:15: #RANTALERT – The decision to turn pro is so much more complicated than “is he a first round pick”

48:30: Rapid fire: Maryland, Kansas, Syracuse, Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan. What do they have on the line?