Whither goest thou, O Cardinals?
Deep into a strong and nearly seamless season, University of Louisville fans who’ve signed on for the ride — as in our badly mangled verse from the Book of Ruth above — are surely wondering what basketball adventures lie ahead through the final three weeks of the season and into the NCAA tournament.
As in: Whithersoever goest thou NOW?
A come-from-behind victory over Miami on Saturday, and an overtime win Monday night at Syracuse signal that Louisville has no intention of discontinuing its winning ways. The team is far from invincible but has run its record to 21-5. It’s maintained a spot in the top four of the 16-team Atlantic Coast Conference, for which it could earn a double-bye in the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, March 8-11. And it is nationally ranked No. 8 in The Associated Press poll.
All good stuff, and Saturday came the news, too, that Louisville is projected as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which begins March 15. In a publicity move designed to get fans talking tourney, the NCAA revealed its current top 16 teams, awarding them mythical spots in four tournament regionals. Louisville is forecast in the East Regional at Madison Square Garden, with defending NCAA champion Villanova, eight-time NCAA winner Kentucky and 11-time champion UCLA. What a ticket that would be.
Of course, all that is mere speculation. But Louisville, in its victories over Miami and Syracuse — two teams fighting tooth and nail for NCAA berths — showed it intends to stay “up there” at the top of college basketball as the season comes to a climax.
For a few minutes Saturday at the Yum! Center, it looked like Louisville might have lost its touch — and especially its defensive prowess — as Miami guards cruised past Louisville defenders for driving baskets.
Miami’s Ja’Quan Newton showed off his “Philadelphia” moves, jetting down wide-open basketball boulevards to soar high for baskets off the glass to help the Hurricanes to a 33-26 halftime lead.
But Louisville called a halt to that and dropped in 11 three-pointers to win.
“We really do need a lot of work on defense, including me,” said guard Quentin Snider, who returned to action Saturday after missing six games with a hip injury. Snider was not the most undressed of the Louisville defenders, but he was one of them — and knew it. “I had a lot of blow-bys, and we missed some defensive assignments, so we’ve just got to pick it up.”
Which is exactly the assessment of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who realizes Louisville’s calling card is its defense — and is astounded when one of his defenders allows an opponent to fly right by. Or when his big men fail to muscle-up under the basket. Asked about Louisville’s lofty tournament projection, Pitino noted that he thinks the fan chatter in advance of the NCAA tourney is fine. “But look,” he said. “If we play the type of defense we played tonight, we’ll get knocked out in the first round.”
The answer for Pitino is practice.
“So as a coaching staff, we’ve got to get our players to hone in on the match-up zone (traditionally a Pitino trademark), hone in on our defense.”
Take two Alka-Seltzers and grab a bowl of chili
Louisville did show improvement as the Miami game wore on, but it was key scoring plays — particularly three-point shots — that fired up the Cardinals: a defensive stop on one end, with a quick scoring reward on the other end.
First to find the range was 6-7 forward Deng Adel, who aced two threes, with the net whipping. It was a welcome thing for Deng, of course, after being suspended for a game, along with teammate Mangok Mathiang, for dragging home way past curfew the previous Saturday. Anyone could see the suspension was particularly humiliating for Adel, a quiet guy. Talk-radio blowhards pontificated about how horrible it was what Deng and Mathiang had done.
In contrast, this writer fondly recalls being among the last to leave a good college party. As the pair was reinstated last week, Mathiang noted: “If I had been thinking, I wouldn’t have stayed out so late. But there wasn’t much thinking going on.”
Which is exactly what steamed their coach.
“We’ve had more curfews this year than any other — because we’ve got to make sure nothing happens in this program right now,” explained Pitino (in light of the ongoing NCAA investigation). “We’re on guard. I totally trust this basketball team. It’s not them I’m worried about. It’s the guys who are out late around them … You see all the incidents that are going on in life right now, never mind basketball, and it’s dangerous out there. It really is a dangerous society. Not only Chicago. It’s very dangerous in Louisville.”
But even Pitino could crack a smile, alluding to a notorious pair of Green Bay Packer partiers.
“It wasn’t like they were just 25-30 minutes late,” said Pitino. “Paul Hornung and Max McGee would be very proud of these guys.”
Deng was just glad to be back.
“It obviously wasn’t a very smart decision,” said Deng. “But once we got back into practice — basketball heals a lot of things for me.”
Lunch pail plays
And the three-point shots healed a lot of problems for Louisville.
After Deng’s threes, Donovan Mitchell added one to help the rally along. Mitchell’s three was one of those rim-rattlers. You know, where the ball bangs back and forth inside the rim before finally dropping through. Canned it, as they say. But those kinds of baskets are pretty encouraging because the shooter has to get enough arc on the ball so that an imperfect shot falls through, rather than clanging off. Mitchell is finding his shot.
Late in the game, Snider and Deng cashed threes to put Louisville ahead for good.
Mitchell loved Snider’s three.
“It was great to have Q back — he’s such a natural leader and presence on the floor,” said Mitchell of Snider. “He was kind of deferring a little bit, but once he started to be more aggressive, it was back to the old Q — and he took that big, big shot on the left wing. That’s Q.”
Louisville came up with a 13-0 run in the second half to change the course of the game with Miami. Then iced the 71-66 victory on the backboards in the final minute.
“Good defense, good rebounding, ball containment and very good offense — passing, passing!” said Pitino. “I thought the key to the game, although Deng and Mangok played well, I think Jaylen Johnson made the great lunch-pail plays when we needed him.”
Same Monday night beating Syracuse 76-72, with center Anas Mahmoud and guard Ryan McMahon coming through in the overtime — after neither had been a factor in recent games.
“I just think it shows how tough we are in the late moments,” Mitchell said after the Miami win. “There were a lot of times we could have just let them take over. There were a lot of times they hit big shots, but we didn’t get flustered. We let them have it with our relentlessness.”
Pitino, of course, is all about relentlessness. But he said his team still needs to pick up its defense. He noted that opponents have abandoned the intricacies of their offenses to simply take the ball straight to the basket. Getting a step outside, and not finding Louisville’s shot blockers waiting. But that’s what opposing coaches do. They find spots. Pitino wants there to be no spots to find.
“I think we’ve got a few weeks to work on our defense, and we’ll have it by the time the tournament starts,” said the coach. “We’ll get it. We’ll get it because that’s the character of this ballclub.”
NCAA Tournament Preview
Florida State (6)
North Carolina (5)
West Virginia (14)
(Courtesy of NCAA. Overall seeding in parenthesis)