SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Since the New Year, the University of Louisville has played the part of Job with a Sisyphus complex.
The Cardinals dropped five of their eight games in January, including decisions made on questionable calls at both Seton Hall and West Virginia, to land themselves squarely on a very thin bubble.
Their response? A week into February they headed to New York with their coach, embattled in the summer after his indiscretion, now dodging rampant rumors that he would bolt the school for a job in the NBA at season’s end -- and get promptly humiliated by Big East underling St. John’s in what appeared to be a bubble-bursting loss.
But the thing about Job and Sisyphus: they never quit. Job took on his suffering and Sisyphus stubbornly kept pushing that boulder up the hill.
Louisville finally inched the boulder in the right direction when the Cardinals stunned No. 3 Syracuse and 31,053 of its orange-loving Valentine’s Day fans, 66-60.
“We didn’t play well at St. John’s but they played great,’’ UL coach Rick Pitino said. “We thought we were going to win one or two of these road games. After we lost to St. John’s, I told the guys, ‘Which one would you rather have: St. John’s or Syracuse?’ Here’s your chance to beat a team that is top three in the nation and could win a national championship.’’
Telling and doing, however, are two different things. Yet the same Louisville team that has been equal parts perplexing and vexing played an intelligent and steady game from the opening tip.
The Cardinals, who have had a season-long case of the yips, didn’t blink when Andy Rautins nailed back-to-back 3-pointers to retake the lead late in the second half. They didn’t wilt when Jared Swopshire and Edgar Sosa both missed the front end of one-and-ones in the final minute, and they didn’t cave when, up just two, Rakeem Buckles turned the ball over under the Syracuse hoop, passing the ball out of bounds with 32 seconds left.
“We played a very intelligent game,’’ Pitino said.
Louisville also handed Syracuse a dose of its own medicine, going zone much of the game. And a team that is so good in its own zone was completely stymied at how to attack one.
Unable or unwilling to penetrate, the Orange instead jacked 19 3-pointers and made just five of them.
Player of the year candidate Wes Johnson had 14 points, but shot only 5-of-20 from the floor; Rautins managed just three 3-pointers
“We weren’t really aggressive until the end of the game,’’ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “The last few games, it’s been like that. We’ve managed to be tough and hang on to win the game, but you can’t be in all of these situations at the end of the game and think you’re going to win them all.’’
In the grand scheme of things, this shouldn’t affect Syracuse much at all. The Orange are 24-2 and would need a flat-out disaster to slide out of a No. 1 seed.
Still, around here there will be some serious hand-wringing, no doubt. Asked about the fretful fans, Pitino -- who has handled that sort of thing once or twice in his career -- chuckled.
“What is this, the Kentucky of the North?” he said. “We played a great team, and please remind your fans, the University of Louisville isn’t exactly chopped liver. There’s no reason to go jumping in the snow. Have a little vino and relax because Syracuse is a great, great team.’’
What will be interesting is what this does for Louisville. Long term, what’s most important is that the Cardinals’ young players performed particularly well. Mike Marra, who Pitino said is the best pure shooter he’s ever coached -- and that includes the likes of Travis Ford and Tony Delk -- nailed four 3-pointers off the bench, including a dagger trey with 1:28 left. Buckles chipped in a critical eight points and four rebounds, spelling Samardo Samuels when he got in foul trouble. And Samuels, inactive for much of the game, came on late with six critical points in the final three minutes.
But in the immediate future, what matters is Louisville’s NCAA outlook. It still isn't entirely clear. The Cards are 16-9 and 7-5 in the Big East, maybe with a huge win like this putting a little separation between themselves and Cincinnati and Marquette.
They have exactly zero wiggle room, though. Louisville should not lose to Notre Dame, DePaul, Connecticut or Marquette, and would help its cause tremendously if it could steal a home victory against either Georgetown or Syracuse.
“We know we are a good team,’’ Marra said. “We haven’t really caught a break all season, but this is exactly what we needed. Hopefully it will get the ball rolling.’’
Rolling uphill, that is.