Forget fate and destiny and all those other romantic notions attached to the NCAA basketball tournament, because Louisville's national championship was a distinctly workmanlike affair. The Cardinals hammered out their title with utter disregard for sentiment and silliness, and at the end there were Denny Crum and his carefully nurtured team celebrating as if to say, "told you so."
The Cardinals are a cold-eyed bunch that seems to lack a certain spontaneity, but that may be exactly why this team will be reckoned with in the coming seasons. For Louisville streaked quietly but with a shocking dominance through the previous rounds of the tournament and then defeated top-ranked Duke, 72-69, Monday night at Reunion Arena with a calm precision.
"We knew how good we were," forward Herb Crook said, in what passed for feverish excitement. "From the start of practice, we knew."
Judging by its late-season performance, somehow Louisville sneaked around unnoticed and became a veritable powerhouse after opening the season 11-6 and enduring boos on its home court. Check the Cardinals' numbers: They finished with all five starters averaging in double figures, winning 17 straight games and 21 of their last 22.
Most shocking are their statistics in the six tournament games. They defeated opponents by an overwhelming average of 11.8 points per game. Before their comparatively narrow victory over Duke, they beat teams by an average of 13.8 points, including a 94-79 devastation of North Carolina, and an 88-77 rout of Louisiana State in the Final Four.
Among other things, four of the five starters shot above 50 percent from the field for the season, with guard Milt Wagner (49.8) the exception. In tournament play, they shot 55.4 percent while holding opponents to 42.6, and outrebounded them by an average of 6.7 a game.
Strangely enough, Louisville trailed in the second half in five of the games, including a 37-34 halftime deficit against Duke. But the Cardinals displayed an unnerving killer instinct in the stretch. In the last six minutes, they outscored opponents by 115-56, including a 16-8 closing run against the Blue Devils.
"We're No. 1 in the country, the world, and the universe," forward Billy Thompson said. "And we'll be back again next year."
As Thompson says, the Cardinals may well be heard from again, despite losing a pair of probable first-round NBA draft picks in Thompson and guard Milt Wagner. The starting lineup next season could be 6-7 Tony Kimbro and 6-1 Kevin Walls in the back court, with 6-9 Pervis Ellison, the tournament's outstanding player, and 6-7 Crook at forward, with 7-foot redshirt Barry Sumpter at center.
Even the normally reserved Crum relishes the thought. "The days of dynasties are over," Crum said. "But this is our fourth Final Four appearance in the '80s and our second championship. Anybody who thinks they have a better program than us has been asleep the last six years."
One side effect of the victory is that it may make people take notice of Crum, who has yet to receive due notice as a coach of substance. He has guided teams to four Final Four appearances in the last seven years, and yet he has been virtually ignored in voting for coach of the year.
While Louisville and Crum can contemplate the future, what the Duke players will see over the next few days are basketballs hitting the rim and bouncing into Louisville hands. And they will remember a box-and-one defense, with the chaser on Johnny Dawkins, preventing the Duke all-America from scoring a field goal in the final 15 minutes.
Sometime in the coming days, the pain will subside and the Blue Devils will look back on the season with mostly fond memories of having won more games (37) than any other team in NCAA history. But that was all difficult to put into perspective late Monday night and early this morning. "Shooting is the strength of our team, but it let us down in this tournament," Jay Bilas said. "Mark Alarie is a 60 percent shooter, but in the NCAA tournament he had trouble finding his range."
Alarie, who made only four of 11 field goal attempts, didn't have nearly as much trouble as David Henderson, who hit five of 15, including five straight misses in Duke's final 11 possessions. "To tell you the truth, I'm not very pleased with the way I played," he said. "As a player you're more critical of your performance and I accept full responsibility for the loss. A lot of the shots I would normally make didn't fall for me tonight."
Perhaps the most impressive single feat, from Louisville's perspective, was holding Dawkins to just two free throws in the final 15 minutes, largely because of Crum's defensive strategy. The Naismith Trophy winner, Dawkins was a force in the first half and early in the second, scoring 24 points in a little under 25 minutes. But he was held to just two field goal attempts in the last 15:36 when Louisville went to a box-and-one combination zone with Jeff Hall handling the one-on-one defense.
One of the most frustrating things for Duke is that it doesn't find itself in a position of national dominance as often as say, Louisville. Duke, of course, will be competitive next year with Tommy Amaker, Danny Ferry, Billy King and a promising sophomore-to-be guard, Quinn Snyder.
But that offers little consolation to Duke's seniors. Bilas, Alarie, Dawkins and Henderson were a squad of workhorse four-year starters who broke numerous school records and had worked steadily toward what they had hoped would be their ultimate reward.
"I almost wish we had lost in the first round rather than go to the final and lose," Alarie said. " . . . We're disappointed, but when we look back, I'm sure we will be happy with what we've accomplished."