Removing team names and national rankings from a resume more often than not is the best way to evaluate a team on merit. Heading into this weekend's play, a certain highly-ranked, much-respected team was just 3-4 against the RPI top-50, with just one of the wins and all of the losses coming to teams inside the top-35. For the entire year, that lack of a truly signature win has been a giant stain on the overall body of work.
On Saturday afternoon in Cincinnati, Louisville finally set itself to scrubbing that stain away.
In a game that looked more like the old Big East than the new American Athletic Conference, the Cardinals and Bearcats slugged away on one another, with Russ Smith landing the final counterpunch with just 2.4 seconds remaining, giving Louisville a huge 58-57 win.
Smith struggled from the floor all game, finishing just 3-of-10, including 1-of-4 from behind the arc. It was Montrezl Harrell who put the Cardinals on his back offensively, scoring 21 points and pulling down 10 rebounds, his sixth double-double in 14 conference games. Louisville now has that signature win it can point to, and it got it on the road against a team that is 18th in RPI and 22nd on kenpom.com.
What had to be most encouraging for Rick Pitino and the Cardinals was the way in which they beat Cincinnati. It's little secret that the Cardinals like to use their defense get out in transition. Among teams in the top-eight conferences on KenPom (Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, ACC, Pac-12, SEC, AAC, Atlantic 10), the Cardinals are 20th in adjusted tempo. Before Saturday, they hadn't won a game in which they scored fewer than 69 points. As such, teams will do whatever they can to force Louisville to have to play consistent half-court offense, and Cincinnati is built to do just that, regardless of opponent.
How did the Cardinals manage to win a game despite scoring just 58 points, their lowest output of the season? By playing some of the best half-court defense any team has played in one single game this year. They held Cincinnati to 28.6-percent shooting, including 5-of-20 from long range. Sean Kilpatrick, the conference's leading scorer and potential player of the year, was 9-of-26 from the floor. In essence, Louisville beat Cincinnati at its own game. The Cardinals now trail the Bearcats by just half a game in the AAC standings with two weeks left in the season, but they also likely have the tougher remaining schedule. After hosting lowly Temple next week, the Cardinals finish the season with games at Memphis, at Southern Methodist, and home against Connecticut. Cincinnati heads to Storrs to take on the Huskies next week, then wraps up by hosting Memphis and traveling to Rutgers. A sweep of the regular season and conference tournament championships would definitely land either of these teams on the 3-line for the NCAA tournament, at worst.