Bone-rattling screen set tone for Cardinals
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. The debate is over.
Louisville didn't earn a top seed, but by the Sweet 16, seeds don't matter as much.
And that issue wasn't even up for discussion five minutes into the matchup against No. 1 seed Washington.
Don't think that a high screen set less than five minutes into a game doesn't mean anything?
Louisville's Otis George leveled Washington's Bobby Jones just shy of midcourt when Jones ran smack into George's two forearms.
Message sent? Oh yeah.
"That set the tone because they had to realize we were a tough team," said George, a senior who was playing with a stress fracture in his right foot. "It set the tone for the rest of our team."
And boy did it do the same for the Huskies.
"We knew that's what kind of team they are, and if you're not ready, you're going to get popped," Jones said after No. 4 Louisville moved onto the Elite Eight with a 93-79 dismantling of the Huskies Thursday night at the Pit in Albuquerque.
"They play exactly the way they do on TV, and unless they call a foul, it's legal to them," Jones said. "They were [the most physical team we faced] from the point guard down to the center. You see how big they were? They hit the weights. ... Maybe I'll hit the weights in the offseason and gain 20 pounds or something."
This was a classic case of East Coast tough ball versus West Coast finesse. Washington wanted to chuck and run, get up and go on the break if it could. Sure, the Huskies got a bit down and dirty early in the game with their defense, but three fouls by Nate Robinson forced the Huskies into a zone and the Cardinals ripped off a 31-12 run to help them go from down nine to up 12 at the half.
Sure, the Cardinals made 3s, lots of them -- seven of them in the first half alone (11 overall). But how do you think the Cardinals, notably Francisco Garcia (five 3s) and Taquan Dean (five as well), got open for those 3s?
"It really set the tone," Louisville senior Ellis Myles said of George's screen. "We saw Robinson out there dancing before the game, and then running up the ramp woofing. But that got the tempo going, [and it] showed who had the physical team.
"It got us going because they were turning their heads and they never knew where we were at," Myles said. "Our goal was to control the backboard and we did that (44-33). Everyone knows we're a real physical team."
Garcia said George let the team know if "we set him up, I'll crack them real quick."
"That's what he did," Garcia said. "He always sets good screens and was a big key for our win."
This toughness angle isn't overplayed with this group. The locker room has looked like a M*A*S*H unit at times.
George had ice on his right foot for the stress fracture. Dean had ice on his right foot after tweaking his ankle. Dean had already won his bout with mono two weeks ago as the illness was apparently cleared from his system.
Myles suffered a fracture on his left thumb earlier this year. Garcia had a deep thigh bruise. Dean had back spasms. Juan Palacios had a corneal scratch, forcing him to wear goggles. Dean, by the way, also was still recovering from double hernia surgery in the offseason.
"I knew from the first day of the season that this team was a hard-working group," Dean said. "We had the freshmen coming in and working hard. We've been in every situation that a basketball team could be in."
But this team wasn't without its turning points. Houston humbled the Cardinals with a three-point win on Jan. 5, forcing Garcia to call everyone out, including himself, for not giving full effort. The Cardinals ripped off nine straight wins before they pulled a no-show at home in a 17-point loss to Memphis. That was Feb. 9 -- and the Cardinals haven't lost since.
"After that Houston loss, everybody started coming together and we were more like a family," Garcia said.
And now the Cardinals are one win away from going to the Final Four, which was expected when Rick Pitino took the job four years ago.
It took a few years but he has made sure this team is physical, tough and embodies all the traits that have made him one of the most intense and passionate coaches in the modern era.
"They're a physical and tough team and played a helluva game," Robinson said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they won the whole thing."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
MORE MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- Selection committee to monitor Embiid injury
- Mount St. Mary's (16-16) clinches NCAA bid
- Zags hold off BYU comeback, win WCC title
- Milwaukee wins Horizon title to reach tourney