Philadelphia, PA – Just under a month ago the Louisville Cardinals had lost four of six games and were stumbling into the postseason while finding themselves in a position no team wants to be come March; on the bubble. Well it's been eight games since the regular season finale and the bubble has yet to burst.
Louisville's run is reminiscent of Connecticut a year ago when the Huskies jumped on Kemba Walker's back and not only won the Big East title but the national championship as well. The Cardinals have already completed step one of that check list by winning four games in four days to cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden and enter the NCAA Tournament as the Big East Conference's automatic bid.
There is no Walker on this Louisville squad however. Peyton Siva is the most recognizable name but certainly hasn't captured the attention that Walker did a season ago.
"We've done it a different way. This team has a lot of character and they work together," said coach Rick Pitino, who is no stranger to the Final Four as this will be the fourth different squad he has taken this far in the tournament and the second time he has done so with Louisville.
The first team he did it with was also a scrappy Big East squad largely ignored, as in 1987, he led the sixth-seeded Providence Friars past top seed Georgetown and the legendary John Thompson before falling to Syracuse in the national semifinals. The similarities to that season aren't lost on Pitino.
"They remind me of the Providence team. The type of players they are from a character standpoint they're almost identical," said Pitino, "It was our goal but you all didn't expect it."
While others may not have believed, Pitino was confident in his team.
"When we started the tournament I told them 'You're going to get to a Final Four. The only commitment I want from you is when we get there you're not satisfied'," said Pitino.
Pitino's words didn't fall on deaf ears as the Cardinals have obviously responded to their coach's confidence.
"The more and more you win the more we believe in him and the more he believes in us," said senior Kyle Kuric, who led the team in scoring this season.
As if the motivation of playing for a national championship was not enough, the Cardinals won't just be facing any other squad in the Final Four. Standing in the way is top-seed and bitter in-state rival Kentucky. In a state that is painted blue, Louisville is just a blip of red.
"There's great tradition with both schools. I've been on both sides of the fence," said Pitino, who coached at Kentucky from 1989-1997 and led the Wildcats to a national title in 1996. "We're kind of limited to our city. They have as many fans in our city as we do so we have to live amongst our competitors."
The rivalry doesn't end there though. Pitino's counterpart in this Final Four duel is John Calipari, a former Pitino pupil. It's rare that the premier matchup in a game will be between two people that won't log a minute of playing time, but while Jared Sullinger and Thomas Robinson battle in the other matchup, the chess match between Pitino and Calipari will highlight this game.
By bringing Kentucky to the Final Four, Calipari became the second coach in NCAA history to get three different teams to the Final Four with Pitino the other.
The all-time series between the two coaches is split 8-8 but Pitino has a 4-0 mark against Calipari in the postseason, including a win during the 1996 Final Four when Calipari was head coach at UMass. The battles on the court don't bring into consideration the heated exchanges in the press over the years.
Both teams have downplayed the rivalry this week however, including the Cardinals.
"Playing [Kentucky] is great but it didn't really matter who we played just as long as we got to the Final Four," said senior Chris Smith.
Regardless of how the squads feel about facing each other there is more than historic familiarity between these teams as they faced off once earlier this season in Lexington.
"They were pretty darn good in December. They've improved certainly as you'd expect a young team to do. They do everything very well," said Pitino of the Wildcats, who won the contest 69-62 primarily due to their dominance on the boards, as they outrebounded the Cardinals 49-28.
"We just have to rebound better than we did last time. Chane [Behanan] and Gorgui [Dieng] have been playing well but we're all going to have to rebound," said Smith.
Behanan missed a great deal of the first matchup playing only 15 minutes while being bogged down by foul trouble. The freshman, a native of Bowling Green, Kentucky, was a recruiting target for both Pitino and Calipari and has averaged 14.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game during the first four rounds.
Kuric (12.7 ppg) struggled mightily in the first matchup with Kentucky, going 2-for-13 from the floor as the Wildcats smothered the senior guard who is primarily a threat from the outside.
"I think he just needs to find other ways to score than the jump shot. He has to move better without the ball and create more opportunities for himself, " said Pitino.
Kuric acknowledges how he needs to improve offensively but said the squad is more focused on defense and how to stop the Wildcats.
Defensive focus has been a key part of Louisville's run with the squad running an alternating zone that adjusts based on opponent and has already showed its effectiveness with the Cardinals holding top-seed Michigan State to 28.6 percent shooting in the Sweet 16.
"We started doing that last year. Just trying to confuse our opponents and win," said Pitino of the team's defensive strategy.
"Talking is the key. It's hard for other teams to figure out what we're doing," said Smith.
Communication may be tougher for the team playing in the frenzied environment of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome during the Final Four. Even with a challenge like that Pitino is confident in his squad.
"We've played at [the Carrier Dome] so we understand how to play in a dome," said Pitino, " Being down in a ball game late doesn't bother this team at all. They've been through the mill from an adversity standpoint."
If Louisville is going to pull off a perfect impression of UConn, the Cardinals will have to overcome another obstacle, one that is near if not dear to their hearts.