Experience trumped excitement once again in the NCAA Tournament tonight when the No. 4 Louisville Cardinals defeated the upstart No. 5 Northern Iowa Panthers 66-53. In doing so, Louisville earned its school-record fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
It was a statement of a win for Louisville, just two years removed from a championship season under Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino. The team’s conservative, defense-oriented style was expected to clash with the fast and feisty game of the Panthers, but the Cardinals maintained control and stayed the course, despite falling behind early in the game. Sophomore Terry Rozier led all Cardinals with 25 points, while junior Montrezl Harrell provided 14 of his own to go with six rebounds.
The long and short of it is that it’s now time to consider Louisville as a legitimate Final Four contender, especially with No. 1 Villanova now eliminated from the East Region. Oddly enough, Louisville’s next opponent will be the North Carolina State Wolfpack, the same team that eliminated Villanova on Saturday night. It’s bound to be a great game, as both Pitino and Wolfpack head coach Mark Gottfried employ a similar isolation game while also stressing tough on-ball and interior defense.
More importantly, it should be noted that Louisville just won a game where its conservative approach on offense was expected to struggle against a fiery Northern Iowa squad looking to play spoiler and continue to give Missouri Valley Conference basketball a good name beyond just Wichita State. Keep in mind, UNI ranked 16th in the nation in field goal percentage this season, making 48 percent of its shots as a whole. Louisville, on the other hand, was 211th in making 43 percent of its attempts. That’s still a very respectable number, but one can see why they’d be expected to have a hard time with a faster team.
Instead, Louisville’s tournament experience and strong defensive attack won out, holding UNI to 39 percent shooting and putting the upstart squad in such a position that the players soon tried to jump-shoot their way out of the hole instead of trying to beat the defense with high-percentage shots. Speaking of, Louisville had plenty of those en route to shooting 46 percent on the evening.
NC State could very well prove to be a tougher matchup for the Cardinals in Syracuse on Friday night, but the team proved that it could handle any challenge tonight. This is a squad that is only two years removed from a championship, and tonight’s win brought them one step closer.
This is a team that can make the Final Four and potentially beyond, and opposing teams had better prepare accordingly.
*Section Photo credit to Gregory Shamus; Featured Photo (above) credit to Joe Nicholson, USA Today Sports