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Can Louisville Take Home Another Title?//

Can Louisville Take Home Another Title?

They're lying in wait, patiently watching the days roll off the calendar and happily flying on the radar of just about everyone in college basketball. They are experienced, they feature a Hall-of-Fame head coach and a combination of size and athleticism to go deep into the NCAA Tournament and maybe even win a national championship.

After all, they did it last year.

Louisville is quietly enjoying an even better season than it had last year when the Cardinals became unbeatable down the stretch and overwhelmed everyone en route to a national title. This year, through Week 17 of the season, Louisville has a better record (23-4) at this point than it did last year (22-5), it is ranked higher in the AP poll than it was at the same time in 2013 (No. 7 vs. No. 10) and has won 10 of its last 11 games. That single loss was a three-point defeat at the hands of Cincinnati nearly a month ago, a loss that was avenged over the weekend when the Cardinals scored a 58-57 win on the Bearcats' home floor.

So why isn't Louisville on the tip of everyone's tongues?

The Cardinals aren't quite as electric to watch as they were last season when Peyton Siva was leading the offense. Gorgui Dieng was a force in the middle who could change games with his defense, and Louisville's frantic attack on "D" made the Cardinals must-see TV.

The defense is still just as fun to watch, and even without Siva or Dieng on the court, the Cards are still dominating on both ends of the floor. They rank in the top 35 in the country in points scored (13th), assists per game (32nd) and field-goal percentage (26th), and they are 19th in the country in points allowed and third in steals per game.

Louisville's four losses have come to the elite teams in college basketball, and that win over Cincy was the Cardinals' first victory over a ranked team this year. They had already lost then-No. 24 North Carolina, then-No. 18 Kentucky, then-No. 24 Memphis and then-No. 13 Cincinnati before beating the Bearcats, who were ranked No. 7 when the two teams met last weekend.

In other words, there is a feeling that Rick Pitino's team hasn't proven itself just yet in 2013-14.

Then there is the loss of Chane Behanan, the team's second-leading rebounder and one of its better scorers. He was booted off the team back in December after testing positive for marijuana one too many times, and the loss of an NBA-caliber talent won't do anything to help Louisville's postseason chances.

But Pitino has been through the wars many times before. He knows that national titles aren't won in January or February. He's well aware that a high ranking means little when the ball is tipped to open March Madness. He has learned the lessons of the years and his two stints as an NBA head coach. The regular season is about prepping for the postseason -- nothing more, nothing less.

And Louisville has all the tools to cut down the nets again.

So what are the keys to winning the NCAA Tournament? There are generally four critical elements.

1) A star lead guard

Nobody wins an NCAA Tournament title without a guard who can dominate games, create his own offense, find his teammates and make a living at the free-throw line. Last season the Cardinals had Siva, a player whose quickness on both ends of the floor kept his opponents on their heels at all times. Smith was the Cardinals' leading scorer last year, and he helped keep the floor balanced. This season Smith's point production has taken a slight step back, but it has been in favor of a more balanced approach of his own. He's recording more assists, he has been just as active on the defensive end and he has become a better shooter both overall and from 3-point range. Smith also has made nearly as many free throws as some of his other teammates have attempted, and he makes just enough of them to make him dangerous late in games.

2) A game-changing big

Montrezl Harrell was a solid role player last year, getting just 16.2 minutes a game and serving as an understudy of sorts to Dieng. Dieng was nearly a double-double machine, and he was a quality shot blocker who protected the rim with opponents beat Louisville's pressure. Harrell is playing a much bigger role this year, and although he doesn't boast the length of Dieng, he is filling all of those other roles just as well. He's averaging 13.0 points per game (more than Dieng did last year) and 8.2 rebounds (fewer than Dieng last year). Harrell is a more effective scorer on the low block and features a more polished post game, allowing him to open the floor for his teammates when he double-teamed. Harrell doesn't put up the same number of blocks as his former teammate, but he does just enough to alter shots around the basket and gets help in that department from Mangok Mathiang. Harrell is a strong, impressive athlete who creates matchup problems inside.

3) Role players who can step up

Luke Hancock, Chris Jones, Wayne Blackshear, Terry Rozier, Mathiang and Stephan Van Treese aren't going to be making anyone's All-American squad, but Louisville's role players have each stepped up time and time again in their college careers to make a big play when the Cardinals needed it the most. This is a confident group, and a handful of them proved last season when Kevin Ware went down in the Final Four that they could take on more responsibility without missing a beat. Louisville features quality depth at each position, and nobody tries to do too much on the court. Egos are checked at the door, and the stars appreciate what they're getting from their teammates. That's a winning combo.

4) At least a little experience

The experience of winning a national championship can't be replicated, and Louisville will go into the NCAA Tournament with six of the nine players who played in last year's title game on the roster. Smith and Blackshear are the only returning starters, but Hancock, Harrell and Van Treese came off the bench to help beat Michigan, and Hancock was a man among boys when the game mattered most. That postseason experience, plus the game experience gained this season, will give Louisville one of the most deepest, most experienced teams in the Big Dance. Eight players are averaging better than 15 minutes a night, and unlike some of the other top teams in the country that have rode their stars hard all season by playing them major minutes, Louisville should be relatively fresh.

Pitino knows how to handle his minutes, and he knows pacing his team to have it playing its best basketball as February turns into March is as important as any ranking or seeding might be in the tourney. The Cardinals are built for this time of year, and the fact they have beaten just one ranked team this season is more an issue of the schedule as anything else. They will two more opportunities to build in that area with road trips to Memphis and SMU coming up the first week of March, and The American Tournament will help polish this team's credentials as well.

Louisville might not be the favorite this year, but the Cardinals have be considered a dangerous team, one that will have every opportunity to win another title this season.

Overlook them at your own peril.