LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Before Chane Behanan could carry Louisville to the Final Four, he had to put down some other baggage.
A McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, the 6-foot-7 freshman forward from Cincinnati started his career with consecutive double-doubles, a first in Cardinals’ history. After a win over Memphis on Dec. 17 that ran the team’s record to 10-0, Behanan said Louisville would go undefeated.
Louisville stumbled and Behanan swooned, playing one of his worst games of the season against Kentucky on Dec. 31, when he fouled out after 15 minutes without making an impact in a 69-62 loss. The two teams meet again Saturday at the Final Four.
“Watch a film of when we played them in Lexington — it looks like we didn’t know what we were doing out there, to be honest with you,” said Behanan, who picked up three fouls in a 4-minute stretch and finished with four points and five rebounds. “We were just running around.”
Behanan said only assistant Richard Pitino approached him about the undefeated statement, telling him to watch what he said. Behanan says he learned from stretch and the mistakes he made against the Wildcats.
“It was a humbling process and a hard process, too,” Behanan said. “Coming off a loss to Georgetown and then another loss to Kentucky, it was really hard for us. We just had to find, we had to dig deep inside to find what was really wrong with us when we went in the slump. They’re both really good teams and I give credit all to them, they just beat us. But there’s a new story now.”
Sure is. Louisville’s late-season surge with eight straight wins, including the Big East tournament championship, coincides with the maturation of its star freshman.
“I think Chane has learned to keep his mouth shut. That’s No. 1,” senior Chris Smith said. “He’s grown up. He’s become a man. In the last three or four weeks he’s become a man.”
Behanan was named the West Regional’s most outstanding player on the strength of his second-half play in Phoenix against Michigan State and Florida.
After going scoreless in the first 20 minutes, he paired 15 second-half points with his nine rebounds against the Spartans, then scored 13 of his 17 points against the Gators in the second half, including the game’s go-ahead bucket with 1:12 to play on a turnaround jumper he said he modeled after his favorite player, Kobe Bryant.
In Louisville’s four NCAA tournament wins, Behanan is leading the team with 14 points per game.
Senior Kyle Kuric said early in the season that Behanan might grow overconfident after a strong performance and follow up with couple of poor practices.
“Now he’s matured and understands that ‘I can have a great game and to keep it going I need to stay hungry and stay focused to have another good game,’” Kuric said.
Behanan says he’s working more, studying film and using coach Rick Pitino’s conditioning program.
“To me it feels like the game comes to you,” he said. “You just do unbelievable stuff you never did before.”
Pitino said there’s more to come from the 19-year-old.
“He’s just scratching his potential,” he said. “He’s going to get so much better down the road.”
Behanan first tasted the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry after transferring to Bowling Green in western Kentucky to finish his high school career. He’s looking forward to giving his team a shot at redemption and showing the Wildcats he’s a different player than they saw in December.
“I feel like if I would have stayed in the game it would have been pretty much an even game,” he said. “Win or lose, it would have been a real good game.”
He’ll get another shot Saturday in New Orleans.