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Louisville’s transformation into Final Four contender

It’s the most basic courtesy one teammate can afford another: If you fall, I’ll pick you up. Perhaps a teammate was fouled. Maybe he tripped over his own two feet. Either way, good teammates pick up fallen teammates — as a courtesy, for starters, but also as an example of the sort of team solidarity and collaboration that plays well during the taxing grind of March Madness. Rest assured that Louisville was not this team one month ago.635631647711386754-USATSI-8480235

“A month ago, we had no leaders on this team, including myself,” sophomore guard Terry Rozier said. “Nobody stepped up. Somebody hit the deck, nobody goes to help him up.” What’s changed since the low point of late February? Start with what went wrong: Louisville’s season began to run off the rails on Feb. 22, when point guard Chris Jones was dismissed from the program amid allegations of sexual abuse; that robbed the Cardinals of their third-leading scorer and primary ball-handler, straining Rick Pitino’s backcourt rotation to the breaking point.

Once 19-3 overall — with all three defeats coming to eventual Sweet Sixteen participants in Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke — and ranked among the top five nationally, the Jones-less Cardinals floundered through the home stretch, splitting their last 10 games to limp into the postseason.

On Sunday, the Cardinals will meet Michigan State in the finals of the East Region, one victory away from the program’s third Final Four berth in four seasons. That team — the one pegged for March sadness, weighed down by basement-level expectations — is now this team. “It’s not about what people expected,” freshman center Anas Mahmoud said. “It’s all about what our goal is. And every time you get better you move your goals to a higher standard.”