Louisville outplays Michigan State, sends No. 1 Spartans packing
PHOENIX -- When he examines a box score, Louisville point guard Peyton Siva first looks at his assists and rebounds. "Nine and two tonight," he said in the locker room after the Cardinals crushed No. 1-seed Michigan State 57-44 in Thursday's Sweet 16 matchup. "That's pretty good."
But other numbers were what really popped off the page: seven blocks by 6-foot-11 sophomore Gorgui Dieng. Perimeter shooting of 46.7 percent in the first half. Nine steals for the game. Twenty-eight percent field goal defense. Then Siva saw the rebounds: Louisville 39, Michigan State 36. "Wow, Michigan State outrebounds people by eight a game!"
Louisville didn't just out-Spartan the Spartans on the glass. The Cardinals outplayed the Spartans, the best-shooting team in the NCAA tournament in virtually every category. They wore them out on defense, outshot them from all over the floor, and forced them into 15 turnovers and a storm of bricks from the perimeter and the paint. Michigan State's 28.6 percent shooting and 44 points were the Spartans' worst ever in the NCAA tournament. With the victory, Louisville coach Rick Pitino improved to 10-0 in Sweet 16 games.
The Cardinals even outperformed the Spartans in the one area few people can outdo Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and his team of video breakdown artists: preparation.
"It was film, film, film," said Louisville sophomore guard Russ Smith, recounting the team's sojourn in the desert since the Cardinals arrived from Portland on Sunday. "The day we landed, our 'off' day? That was film. Then it was film that night. Got up for breakfast. Film. After practice, film. Then we ate and we watched more film. Film for dinner, it was film, film, film."
When the Spartans' freshman reserve guard Brandan Kearney, who had made only a cameo in the hours of film sessions, checked into the game in the first half for the first of two brief appearances, the Cardinals knew him, too. "He wasn't on the film that much, but he subbed into the game and I remembered: Kearney!" said Smith. "It was one of those things in the film you had to remember. We were all kind of laughing about that. We knew them inside out."
All the preparation distilled down to three main goals: limit Michigan State's three-point shooting, beat them on the glass, and keep Dieng, who has been prone to foul trouble, in the game to make Michigan State's All-America Draymond Green think twice about driving the lane. Done, done and done. The Spartans hit just 5-of-21 shots from beyond the arc, for 23.8 percent; Louisville was plus three on the glass and Dieng had just three fouls. Meanwhile Green had 13 points and 16 rebounds but hit just 5-of-16 shots from the field.
It may not have been on the must-do list, but the Cardinals also got very hot on the perimeter in the first half, hitting 7-of-15 in the first half. Russ Smith came off the bench and hit two, and Jared Swopshire hit two in one game for the first time all season. Even Dieng, who has only shot two threes in his career (both misses) made one.
On offense everyone contributed but no one really stood out. Thirty-three minutes had passed before a Louisville player broke into double figures. (That was freshman Chase Behanan, who had a team-leading 15 points along with nine rebounds and three steals) "We're a really balanced offense, as you can see," said Siva, pointing to the box score.
In forcing Michigan State into one of its worst games ever, did Louisville, now the winner of seven straight, play its best basketball of the season? In the locker room afterward, there was, of course, a balance of opinion. "Nah, we've played better," said Siva. "It's definitely up there, because this one was to got to the Elite Eight," added Swopshire, a junior forward who contributed two rebounds and two steals in addition to his two three-pointers.
Standing nearby senior guard Kyle Kuric, who had seven points and three rebounds, didn't care how the game measured up. "All that matters is that we played well enough to win," he said. "That's all that matters now, survive and move forward."
Can Louisville survive one more time to make it to the Final Four?
The Cardinals' Elite Eight opponent, Florida, has had one of the best offenses in the country all year, highlighted by a perimeter attack that averages 9.8 three-pointers a game, best in the country. But the Gators have recently been playing great defense, too; they held Marquette, a great transition team, to 30.8 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from the three in their 68-58 win. "I don't think we've come close to playing to our potential yet," said Florida sophomore forward Patric Young.
The Cardinals would no doubt say the same thing. And they know what that means for their next 36 hours: film, film, film.