I've seen a handful of excellent ball games this year. The Big Ten has been historically good, and Indiana has not only been good, they've been great to watch. There is ridiculous parity in the game; and while that usually means a lot of mediocre teams, that's not the case right now. There are a whole lot of good teams, and there have been a lot of good games. In particular, I think of the Indiana/Wisconsin/Michigan/Michigan State/Ohio State series was phenomenal, and those games rank up with all the classics I grew up on. But, the one game that really sticks out for me was the first Louisville/Notre Dame game. It was the most dramatic game I have seen in years, even if it wasn't close to being the best.
For those of you who were tuned in to the game, you were probably reaching for the remote at just about the same time Louisville started to slack off their legendary attack. They were walking the ball down the court, they were looking up at the clock, they were careful not to foul. Fans in the arena were digging out their car keys, putting on their coats, looking down the aisle to see if they had to step over people or if everyone else was leaving too. Those of us who follow such things (I follow both Louisville and Notre Dame) had more or less taken the outcome for granted when Jack "Luke Harangody Jr." Cooley got tagged for foul number five on a horrible call with about seven minutes left. All in all, it was a customary denouement for a hard-fought game that was all but over.
When the ridiculously improbable comeback started, no one noticed. With 45 seconds left and Notre Dame down eight, Jerian Grant hurried down the court, hoisted an uncontested three, and canned it for his first field goal of the night. No big deal, right? Too little, too late. Happens all the time in these situations: team way down, hoisting threes, you're going to see a couple go in. Then after some laxity on the Card's behalf, Grant flies down the court again, cans another three . . . this one contested, but just barely. A few seconds later, again he's flying down the court; but after two treys in a row, Louisville has started to pay attention. He's wrapped up (by Siva? I can't remember), runs off an impromptu pick (less a pick and more an obstacle provided by a teammate who wasn't moving at the same speed as Grant), and deposits a third three.
Now, it was a game.
On the next trip up the floor, down three, the Irish put Louisville's Gorgui Deng on the line. He missed both foul shots, and ND had the ball back with 16 seconds left.
Everyone knew that Jerian Grant was taking the last shot. Everyone knew it had to be a three. All Louisville had to do was guard the three-point line, and make sure Russ Smith was all over Grant with one of the bigs running at him when he came off the inevitable pick. No way anyone drops FOUR STRAIGHT threes in less than a minute, right?
What happened next were two of the most inexplicable mental mistakes I have seen in a long time out of two top-20 college teams: first, down THREE POINTS with almost no time left, Grant knifes down the right side of the lane for a TWO POINT field goal. Second, instead of employing the "matador defense" and allowing Grant to get the two unscathed, Louisville chose to closely defend him on the drive, and ended up fouling him! And not a good hard foul, which would have negated the shot and put him on the line for two free throws (thereby still leaving ND one point short with time for only one very brief possession left on the clock), but a contact-in-the-process-of-defending foul, allowing Grant to get up (AND HIT!) the shot, as well as putting him on the line to attempt THE GAME TYING FREE THROW! Which, of course, he hit. After that, there was the inevitable Russ Smith brain fart, and the game went into overtime.
From there, the hilarity continued. At the start of each overtime, Louisville opened a little breathing space, only to be reeled back in by Notre Dame. Louisville was able to shift back into Full Chaos Mode, but full chaos mode means the maximization of the random, and the random means some breaks go your way, some breaks go the other way . . . and the breaks were going Notre Dame's way. In the ridiculous scrums that pass for rebounding in U of L games, the ball started to get batted back toward the ND goal. Louisville would execute their hellish defense for the majority of the shot clock, only to see a desperation lob get tossed across court to an ND player with a wide open shot (wide open mainly because he got totally lost in the chaos, stood still, and watched the defense run away from him). And, on Louisville's offensive end, there was Russ Smith.
To understand Louisville, all you need to do is watch Russ Smith. He's fast, he's chaotic, he has a motor like no one else you will ever see. He is the ultimate disrupter. On the defensive end, he's always up in your face, on you so hard you can't shake him. He's fast enough to play the lanes and knock down passes when he's off the ball, and still recover right up in your face when the ball swings back over. Offensively, he flies around just as much, hurtling at the basket with or without the ball, without a plan, just always flying around. His outside shots are like Tourette's, more inexplicable mental tic than rational offensive strategy. He is a Tasmanian Devil, a perpetual motion machine: and usually, at the end of a game, his psychosis has left his opponent on the floor in a heap, with the scoreboard announcing a triumph precipitated by the sheer havoc he has wreaked.
Rick Pitino loves Russ Smith. He has a whole team comprised mostly of Russ Smith variations: the same hyper-athletic quickness, the same perpetual motion, the same indomitable motor. The same dedication to Full Chaos.
A descendant of Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell", Full Chaos has little to do with the fundamentals: Full Chaos means Louisville's rebounding proficiency has less to do with blocking out, and more to do with everyone charging the basket every time a shot goes up. Louisville's defensive proficiency has less to do with rotation and position and more to do with overwhelming pressure (Louisville never runs a full court press just to make the guards work harder; they always press to steal the ball). Louisville's offense has nothing to do with spacing, position, or shooting: it's simply about the sheer number of times they heave the ball at the basket because they are moving so much faster than the other team, and therefore get more opportunities. Ultimately, like 40 Minutes of Hell, the Full Chaos mode is about making the other team play your way.
And therein lies my problem with the University of Louisville Cardinals, as currently constituted: "playing their way" means totally disrupting the game of basketball as I love it. Pitino and The Cardinals are successful to the degree that they can turn the game into shit.
I don't blame The Rick for this approach. His job is to WIN GAMES, period. Well, that and graduate the minimum number of players necessary to keep the NCAA off his ass. And keep his players out of jail . . . all of which he has managed to do. On top of that, he generally has guys that are committed to him and to each other, and try their best to be reasonable representatives of the University. Anyway, the true beauty of the Full Chaos approach is that he doesn't really need to have top-notch basketball players, he just has to have top notch athletes, which are much more common these days. He doesn't have to worry about developing his two's mid-range game, he just needs to get him in better shape than the players he will be facing. He doesn't have to worry about his five's back-to-the-basket game, he just has to make sure he can be more of a dervish than any other five in the nation. He doesn't really have to teach them too much of anything: most of the core work for the current iteration of The Cards is done by running stairs. Of course he always has to stockpile a shooter or two to give his offense a little bit of a wrinkle, and having a decent point guard makes his life a whole lot easier. But, make no mistake: given the choice between a top-notch point that can't play at his speed (say, Trey Burke) over a warp speed point good for one seriously knuckleheaded play every five times down the court (say, Peyton Siva), warp speed wins ten times out of ten. Again, I don't blame Pitino for taking this approach . . . I mean, look at the guy's record. It speaks for itself.
I don't root against The Cards because they are lazy or undeserving; on the contrary, they're one of the hardest working teams in the nation. I don't root against them because of some sort of negative social code that they subliminally radiate: again, all the guys on the team seem like decent enough folk (although The Rick himself is a bit of a skeez), and rewarding hard work is something that we can all get behind. I don't even root against all Rick Pitino/U of L teams: the 2005 Cards with Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean was one of my favorites. No, it's just this current style of Louisville team: I root against them because they destroy all that is beautiful about the game.
And it's not that I don't like defense: I am a Big Ten/Big East fan, after all. I was raised on Bobby Knight and Gene Keady. One of my favorite teams to watch is Wisconsin: Bo Ryan's defensive schemes have a brutal efficiency and logic, and are often as beautiful as they are brutal. I tend to like free flowing games better, but "free flowing" doesn't mean the same as "no defense".
It just so happens that I love the game of basketball. I love its motion, I love its flow, I love its strategy. It is a cliche at this point to compare basketball to jazz, but there you have it: there's improvisation, there's discipline, there's melody, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, syncopation. Like jazz, there's a lot of ways to do it, and a lot of ways to do it wrong. As cavalier as I may be in my attitudes toward music, I am a basketball purist: show me complexity, show me motion, show me shapes and designs that I can get inside and marvel at. But whatever you do, don't turn my game to shit.
Chris Paul is a beautiful player: he moves into zones, sees the shapes of the court before they even materialize, and gets the ball just where it needs to go. Steve Nash does the same, with an even more eccentric language than Paul. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson moved in dimensions that others didn't even see. But Derrick Rose, good as he may be, is nothing more than a human missile as far as I'm concerned. Alan Iverson was a cannonball. Kevin Durant? Breathtaking. LeBron James? A dull bully. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I don't care whether my team wins or loses, but I will tell you that one of the five best college basketball games I have ever seen is a game that my team lost.
It is entirely likely that Pitino will someday stumble on just the right point guard, a guy that can play at Full Chaos tempo but actually make plays instead of chaos (I think Indiana's Yogi Ferrell could have been that point guard). If he does, he'll pick up a few other parts, and maybe build a team that is as beautiful as it is fast. When that day comes, I'll don the red and black and cheer my lungs out. Until then, I will smile and raise a glass to toast the Cards victories, but I certainly won't get excited about that team.
* * * * *
Louisville, of course, ended up losing the epic 5 OT war against Notre Dame. There were several opportunities to win it, but Louisville never put the Irish away. Or, rather, Russ Smith never put the Irish away. I have never seen more appalling guard play by a good team in a crucial situation. Smith was mind-bogglingly bad at the worst time. Time freezes when the game is on the line, and that's precisely when just running around doesn't work. You have to make a play.
Louisville has not lost since that game. For good measure, they beat Notre Dame twice, both by double digits. They stormed back against a flawed Syracuse team to win the final Big East tournament, and rolled into the NCAAs as the number one overall seed, a ranking that they deserved as much as two of the other three no. 1's, Kansas and Indiana. They are the most popular pick to win it all, and it's hard to argue that: at this point, it really looks like they could turn any game they play into a steaming pile of shit. Just don't expect me to like it.