It’s the post-game press conference after Louisville beat Kentucky 73-70 last Wednesday night, and Louisville coach Rick Pitino is sailing along with the scribes, answering serious questions with thoughtful answers, praising his opponent, and tossing in a little levity here and there – when he suddenly remembers something he wishes to add.
“Kentucky is a tough team,” says Pitino. “It was quite an impressive performance by them tonight coming off the North Carolina game.”
Pitino is talking about the way Kentucky came to Louisville ready to play, on the heels of a stirring 102-100 victory over North Carolina just a few days before. Talking about how the tip-top teams in college basketball are able to follow one scintillating performance with another. It’s hard to do.
And it’s exactly what Louisville, itself, must do when it faces No. 12 Virginia on Wednesday at the KFC Yum! Center (7 p.m.; ESPN2): Follow a thrilling victory over Kentucky with another sterling performance against Virginia, which has beaten Louisville three of four since Louisville joined the Atlantic Coast Conference.
And Virginia is just the second of a four-game stretch of top-notch opponents lined up for Louisville over the Christmas and New Years’ holidays. After Kentucky and Virginia, Louisville plays Indiana University on Saturday in Indianapolis, followed by Notre Dame next Wednesday in South Bend. All four opponents are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
But Pitino doesn’t see it as a hardship. This is the schedule he made, shaped probably pretty much the way he wanted. And you get the idea it’s not just a challenge he dreamed up to harden his team, but a challenge he’s savoring himself, too, as a coach.
“Now we’ve got Virginia, where every possession is life and death,” says Pitino. “And then you go to Indiana, where all they do is drive and shoot threes and go low-post. And then you’ve got Notre Dame at Notre Dame, where they kill you with prayers the entire night.”
The coach catches some laughs and continues.
“So the ACC is very difficult, but for us, tonight we were hoping to get on a little bit of a run here, and get a few wins with this schedule coming in, this gauntlet coming. And we got one tonight. But we got it by playing really good basketball and that’s important.”
For Louisville, which doesn’t have scoring stars, playing good basketball means playing great defense. And the Cardinals got that against Kentucky – freezing the three-point line and kind of feeding Kentucky’s shooters to Louisville’s shot blockers inside.
It’s been many years since Louisville has been able to field a team with height equal to or taller than Kentucky and other teams. But now U of L has a size and quickness advantage inside in 6-foot-10 Mangok Mathiang, 6-11 Ray Spalding, 7-foot Anas Mahmoud and 6-9 Jaylen Johnson.
So every time Kentucky’s guards came calling, Louisville’s answer was the same: Don’t be bringing that stuff in here.
Snider knows all the angles
Several Louisville players enjoyed maybe the best games of their career against Kentucky.
Quentin Snider led all scorers with 22 points, playing 37 of 40 minutes. Deng Adel also played 37 minutes, spending much of his time defending Kentucky’s electric point guard Malik Monk. After Monk had thrown down 47 points on North Carolina, Louisville held Monk to 16. Adel scored 18, including 6-for-6 at the free throw line.
Snider seemed to inspire his teammates with clutch baskets, particularly in the first half, when he scored 16 points, mostly on lay-ups and pull-up jumpers. The 6-2 guard would get loose, then go right to the rim.
“I thought the pick and roll was my money game, and coach said be aggressive on offense, so that’s what I tried to do,” says Snider. “When I reached seven points, I was feeling it, so I tried to attack the basket and play good defense.”
On one play in the second half, the 6-2 Snider drove on 6-11 Kentucky center Bam Adebayo for a bucket and a free throw.
“I was just trying to dance on (Adebayo), trying to move his feet,” Snider explains. “Once I saw him start to fall, I went straight into attack mode.”
Another time Snider pulled up suddenly, hoping to snag a foul. The crash didn’t come, but Snider, shooting flat-footed, pooched up a little shot that dropped in. He was hot.
“Quentin is a very good offensive player – a very good offensive player,” says Pitino.
Moving his chess pieces around, Pitino assigned others the task of guarding Kentucky’s swift point guard De’Aaron Fox — so Snider could go all out on offense.
“He knows how to play the angles, knows how to play it,” adds Pitino.
‘C’mon, let’s win this game’
Louisville has a raft of excellent roll players, and Pitino seems to have a notion of how to deploy each player’s best “angles.”
For 7-foot center Anas Mahmoud, who alternates with 6-10 center Mangok Mathiang, the best angle is height. Not only is Mahmoud a 7-footer vertically, he’s more than that horizontally, stretching out long arms to cover a lot of air estate.
“I come to the games knowing it is my job to do certain things, and blocking shots is one of those things,” says Mahmoud, who swatted away two Kentucky shots and fanned-off several others. “Coach tells us we all have to add value to the team. And that’s one thing I know I can add value, blocking shots.”
Mahmoud says he skies on every inside shot – even those he knows he can’t reach.
“Timing helps, but it’s a mentality, too,” says Mahmoud. “I’m not going to block every shot. It’s impossible. And I may get dunked on a few times. But blocking shots is something I can add to the team.”
The lead changed hands several times in the first half, with Kentucky on top 40-39 at halftime. But Pitino had sold his players on sticking to their defensive plans – and that paid off in second half “stops.”
“We had a really good game plan,” says U of L junior forward Jaylen Johnson. “I found out that it’s really true that Coach Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach: He knows what to do! He had the 4s and 5s (the team’s tall players, including Johnson) get the rebounds, and the 1-2-3s getting back on defense to stop the Kentucky fast break. Without coach, without his game plan, beating Kentucky would be impossible.”
In the huddles, Johnson says Pitino set the tone.
“Coach was with us the whole time,” says Johnson. “We had a couple mess-ups, but he never lost trust in us. He’d say, ‘C’mon, let’s win this game. Let’s win this game.’ ”
Shout it out with glee! Then back to the sleigh, Rudolph
Of course, the problem of being ready for Virginia could be Christmas. What better time for friends and family to lavish praise on their conquering heroes. How they love you when you beat Kentucky.
Probably not a big part of Christmas conversations.
Yet Louisville will need a plan for Virginia as good as it had for Kentucky. Maybe better.
Virginia (10-1) owns victories over Iowa, Providence and Ohio State, with a loss to West Virginia. The 12th-ranked Cavaliers lead the country in scoring defense, allowing opponents just 43 points per game. And they’re second in victory margin, with a 22-point spread over opponents.
And Virginia has proven particularly tough on Louisville, leading 8-4 in the all-time series. That includes a 1983 game in Freedom Hall when 7-4 Ralph Sampson scored 25 points to lead No. 1-ranked Virginia to a 98-81 victory over Louisville. Or was it 35 points?
Today’s Virginia has beaten Louisville in three of four games since Louisville joined the Atlantic Coast Conference — with the Cavaliers employing clock-numbing picks and passes to produce good shots … eventually. From afar, it appears Virginia has upped its tempo a bit this year. Of course, global warming is melting the glaciers, too.
It’s a difficult style to play against because most of the teams that play that way are outmanned, just trying to spring an upset. Good teams put up with it for a few minutes, then sweep the gym. But Virginia has talent – and seems dedicated to the life.
Obviously a watch-out game for Louisville.
Indiana (10-2) is more Louisville’s speed, with excellent shooters and a strong pivot man. But the Cream and Crimson have spent coach Tom Crean’s entire nine-year career in Bloomington trying to come close to Louisville in defense.
Notre Dame (10-2) is always exciting for Louisville, and vice-versa – including the 2013 game in South Bend when Notre Dame won out 104-101 in five overtimes. Five overtimes! That loss proved to be a turning point for Louisville. The Cardinals then won 16-straight en route an NCAA Championship.
Note this date on your Cat Calendar
Meanwhile, Kentucky coach John Calipari didn’t think as much of his team’s play as did Pitino.
“The biggest thing tonight is we didn’t have the discipline,” says Calipari in a post-game presser. “We were walking out of time outs, guys were breaking off, doing their own thing. The same thing defensively. We had talked about how we would play certain things. Then guys did their own thing and had an excuse why the did it.
“With that being said,” Calipari continues, “on the 21st of December, we are not good enough to go on an opponent’s court that’s a top-10 team. We’re not. They are better than us on Dec. 21… But it’s a great win for (Louisville). They have a better Christmas than us.”
Of course, Calipari is familiar with the difficulty of transforming fab freshmen into team players. And he has a remedy.
“So if I tell you how we’re playing, if you break down defensively and do your own thing, you’re out,” he vows. “That’s the easiest way. The bench is my friend.”
And then again…
“Thank God it’s Dec, 21. I’ve got time.”