Monday March 23rd, 2015

When the East Regional began to disintegrate into a chaotic mishmash of upsets and unexpected participants, it seemed like a perfect fit for Northern Iowa. Here were the Panthers—a 30-win team, largely unknown to the majority of the country—sitting like a land mine for their quadrant of the bracket. It would be the perfect chance to showcase themselves against an odd collection of overachieving programs and March stalwarts.

All they had to do was beat fourth-seeded Louisville. A Louisville team that was at times semi-dysfunctional, on the court and off. Piece of cake right?

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Well, a funny thing happened on the way to Syracuse and the Sweet 16: Northern Iowa was sent home early, falling 66-53 to the Cardinals.

Which, when you think about it, is the perfect place for this Louisville team to end up and try and salvage its oft-confusing season. Make no mistake: The Cardinals were not, by any means, horrible this year. They have now won 26 of their 34 games, never losing more than two games in a row. All but two of those losses—Virginia and Syracuse—came to teams that are now in the Sweet 16.

But this was not a typical Louisville season.

Head coach Rick Pitino at times was frustrated with how his team played, how it connected—with him and with each other. It was a young team, led by upperclassmen. There were players from other countries, other backgrounds who took more time than expected to mesh together. Then there was one of its best players, guard Chris Jones, being kicked off the team in mid-February because of his connection to a sexual assault case involving two female students.

There were distractions. And when the Cardinals barely got by 13-seeded UC-Irvine in their first game of the NCAA tournament, it looked like Louisville's distractions would finally end its season. But it escaped, surviving to play another game, against a Northern Iowa team considered one of the most fundamentally sound teams in the entire field.

And it beat them at their own game.

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Sure, it helped that Terry Rozier exploded for 25 points on the night. But this wasn't a one-man show. Louisville outrebounded Northern Iowa. It forced 10 Panthers turnovers. Every time Northern Iowa tried to make a run, there was a Louisville answer to match it. Then there was the defense, quick and aggressive, back where Pitino likes it.

Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa's star and the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year, was limited to 14 points, but only attempted seven field goals.

Another sign that maybe, finally Louisville has figured out what it needed to do and be in order to be truly successful this season. So perhaps it's fitting that the Cardinals are headed to Syracuse and the Sweet 16 instead of Northern Iowa. Everyone knew what the Panthers were this season.

Louisville was still a mystery. Just like Michigan State and Oklahoma and North Carolina State.

Look like it'll fit in just fine this week.

 

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