Aaron: What a difference 48 hours can make. Saturday morning was unquestionably the low point of Louisville’s season. They weren’t just beaten, but they were humiliated on their home floor in the biggest home game of the season to date.
I have to get something off my chest on behalf of college basketball fans, regardless of what color jersey you wear — the officiating in the first half of the Virginia game was the most egregious sham of a organized basketball I can remember. If there was ever a case for needing one or two more referees on the floor, that was it, because these three couldn’t keep up with this game.
That being said, even if the officiating would have been unfairly in Louisville’s favor, it wouldn’t have mattered against Virginia. As well-prepared and dominant as Louisville looked against Pittsburgh and Florida State, Virginia looked like that against Louisville. They totally dismantled the offense, and had an answer for anything the Cards threw at them. They cut up Louisville’s defense like nobody else has, shooting nearly 58 percent from the field — the first time any opponent has shot over 50 percent against the Cards this season. For basketball fans in the abstract, it was beautiful to watch. For Louisville fans, it was as frustrating as a game can be.
UofL finishes the season with a road game at Virginia on Saturday, March 5. Unless they make shots, adjust their defense to keep Virginia under 50 percent shooting (or under 40 percent, closer to their season average) or discover Mangok Mathiang was the missing link, it’s a game that Cards fans will watch with one eye open.
That being said, this team is tough, resilient and has the character to get up off the mat and punch back, which they did in the biggest game of the year against North Carolina.
In THE biggest game of the year, the Cards showed what kind of team they can be — a great team. On second thought, make that a great, frustrating team.
I’m sure in some instances, like Virginia, you have to tip your hat to your opponent for creating chaos, causing stupidity and mistakes. But watching UofL do their best salsa dance with UNC — two steps forward, one step back — was utterly frustrating, and in too many instances, self-inflicted.
It was like there was some invisible force that would forbid the Cards from stringing together a series of good plays without something bad happening, again. In quick summation, I noted all of these, which occurred during the first half alone:
—Play great defense for the entire shot clock and give up a long rebound or bat the ball out of bounds.
—Make a great, strong offensive rebound and throw up some sort of soft, ugly fadeaway hook-shot put-back.
—Score a basket, create a turnover on defense, run down in transition … and commit a charge on a fast break.
—Get in good rebounding position, make a nice boxout, get fouled on rebound, miss front-end of a one-and-one free throw.
—Play great defense, run a great play of offense to beat the halftime game clock … but be completely oblivious to the fact that the shot clock was running out 3 seconds before the game clock, and not even get a shot off.
I hate to go on about all of the mistakes made after the biggest win of the season, but ultimately it’s the little things in a game that make a difference, especially when playing good opponents. This team loses more than its share of the “little things.” That is what is holding them back from being great.
All that said, what is “holding them back” is also not enough to keep them from second place alone in the ACC, and only a game behind North Carolina for the conference lead. In effect, the Cards are actually only a half game behind the Tar Heels because that is the only regular season matchup between the two, so UofL will always maintain that tiebreaker.
The first mention must be of Damion Lee. This guy is some kind of player. In front of over 20 NBA scouts, Lee shined, scoring from everywhere on the floor, from the first two points of the game — a nasty one-handed dunk in traffic — to the final two points at the free throw line. He was on the floor for every minute of the game, scoring 24 points and grabbing 5 rebounds. He was efficient, making 8 of 12 shots from the floor, including 4 of 7 from 3-point land, and making all 4 free throws.
Next, Cards fans must wish Onuaku was on the floor for 40 minutes, but because of foul trouble, he was only there for half of the game, spending 17 minutes on the bench. Now, his fourth foul was an atrocious, phantom, moving screen at a pivotal point late in the second half, which sent him to the bench. That said, he has to play the first half with two hands on the steering wheel. He can’t continue to go to the bench with two fouls and over 10 minutes left in the first half. (Last night he followed up his first foul with his second less than a minute later, and then went to the bench for the last 11 minutes of the half.)
It’s not that the Cards can’t win without him — they can. They’ve got unparalleled depth in the front court, and will get even deeper when Mathiang recovers from his broken foot and freshman Dieng Adel keeps developing after his slow start due to a knee injury. But in his 23 minutes, against one of the best teams in the nation, Onuaku was a dominant force, logging another double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. That’s in Shaq or Dwight Howard-like territory, 20 and 16, if he plays a full game.
Another point of note, Trey Lewis is a UofL version of Jekyll and Hyde, startling similar to Chris Jones for most of the game, and DeJuan Wheat in the biggest moments. I believe Trey Lewis can be the true point guard that leads this team on a serious March run, but too often he gets careless with the ball or forces bad shots.
The Carolina game was a perfect example. I’m not sure Louisville wins without Trey Lewis. He scored 8 of his 9 points in the last 8 minutes of the game, including an incredible, contested layup with 1:44 left in the game. Then he essentially put the game out of reach with two huge free throws that pushed the lead to 4 after Carolina cut it to 2 with 35 seconds left. That said, with 2 minutes left, and the Cards up 6, Lewis turned the ball over in the middle of the floor and let Carolina back in the game. He had a great 9 points, 4 rebounds and 2 steals. But he also had no assists and 3 turnovers. The Cards need him to be Trey Lewis, not Damion Lee. Protect and distribute the basketball, play good defense and take scoring opportunities as they come.
Several others also deserve recognition for their performance in the win against Carolina. Quentin Snyder had a quiet, but excellent, game. He only scored 6 points (on a bad 2-for-11 shooting night), but retrieved 4 boards and had an awesome 7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. That is good point play (minus the 9 missed shots). The Energizer Bunny, Donovan Mitchell, was awesome as usual, with 10 points and 5 rebounds in only 18 minutes. And while their stat lines don’t show how important they were, freshman Ray Spalding and sophomore Anas Mahmoud were huge. Mahmoud missed another big night by a few post-move layups that rolled around the rim and out. While Ray Spalding played 28 minutes in his first game against the number one team in the nation (number two in the AP rankings). They are both going to be an incredible force as they continue to develop.
Finally, going forward, the theme of this last week reflects the college basketball landscape this year — it’s all about matchups. Everyone knew the Carolina game would be completely different than the Virginia game. What nobody (except Vegas) could have predicted is how drastically different those styles squared and circled. Unless the Virginia game was just an anomaly, and the Cards go get them in the rematch, my hope is that they are just a bad matchup for UofL, and that they won’t meet in the ACC or NCAA tournament. Other examples of this would be like Louisville being a bad matchup for Connecticut in 2014, when the Cards beat them by 8, 33 and 10 in the three games they played that year, while the Huskies went on to win the whole tournament.
I’m glad Louisville gets four full days before hosting Boston College on Saturday. After a 48-hour rollercoaster, these guys deserve a break. The Cards will dominate a struggling BC team, but they’d better use it as a game to keep improving, because they have to go to Duke just 48 hours after that. Let’s just hope that 48-hour ride is smoother than this last one.
Ashley: Man, man, man … I don’t know how much more my heart can take! After the Virginia game, my roundup was going to begin and end with “wow.” This team is absolutely going to give me a heart attack, but over the last week, I also began to wonder if maybe this team has a case of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde complex. I’m sure all Louisville fans walked in utter disbelief all weekend hoping that Monday would not be a repeat. Then they received the best gift since Christmas — a home upset against the number two team in the country! Initially, last week looked like the tale of two teams. How could the same team who upset North Carolina, and looked so impressive doing so, get blown out at home by Virginia, a solid, but lower ranked team? It’s hard to reconcile, but I’m no longer worried about the two faces of this team. Upon further reflection, I think the Virginia loss was just a culmination of all the little things Louisville has struggled with this season. They all got exposed on the same night. Couple that with an off shooting night and you get a 16-point loss at home.
Against Virginia, Louisville looked almost uncertain, and this is something I’ve not seen from them this season. It was almost as if they were so shocked at all of the things going wrong that they were scared to make a mistake. At one point, I wondered if, before the game, someone told them that Virginia was REALLY good and would be hard to beat. Louisville looked tight, made too many silly turnovers and, as usual, did not block out on defense. Either way, that loss was ugly, and very embarrassing. It was essentially a perfect storm for Virginia — one I don’t expect to be repeated on March 5 for the rematch. I also would rather them get this out of their systems now, than in March.
While I could go on and on about free throws, layups and block outs missed, I will refrain, but only because of the emergence of Anas Mahmoud as a contributor to this team. It excites me to see him become more of an offense threat, particularly with his back to the basket. Not only is it good for Louisville’s offensive production, it makes life on offense a lot easier on the guards and makes defenders play honest defense. It’s a win all around for the team. I can appreciate his length and his ability to alter shots on the defensive end of the court without fouling. Let’s also not forget to mention his behind-the-back pass on a fast break. At 7 feet tall, that is extremely impressive.
Overall, this week has been a crazy rollercoaster for Cardinal fans, but I expect the UNC rebound win to get them on the right path. Next up for Louisville is Boston College, which is the one ACC game I thought would be a guaranteed W. While Louisville learned the hard way that no game in the ACC is an off night, I’m predicting a win by 15 or more points on Saturday. The following week, Duke and Notre Dame won’t be so pleasant, but if Louisville can stay focused on the things they did right to win against UNC, this Boston College game can help them prepare to make a big statement in the weeks to come.