Ballz: Sports by Stephen George

Mar 12, 2008 at 1:09 am

Time for Cards to refocus

Heading into a postseason that starts Wednesday with the beastly Big East tournament in New York, the University of Louisville men’s basketball team could learn a little something about focus from a rival.

Kentucky’s Wildcats showed up to play Sunday, albeit about 10 minutes after the game against Florida started. Senior Day at Rupp Arena was perhaps the last and best chance for the Cats to prove to the NCAA tournament selection committee that they deserve to be among the 65. With an RPI of 49 and a 12-4 record in a Southeastern Conference that’s down this year, the Cats are on the bubble. They’re 4-9 against top-50 RPI teams, but seem to be clicking — finally — under first-year coach Billy Gillispie.

Generally speaking, here’s the inventory: Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford, two seniors on fire who, in the last handful of games, have discovered the most appealing qualities of leadership; center Perry Stevenson, a sophomore eating up the leftovers from injured standout Patrick Patterson, delivering 18 points, 10 boards and a rather profound inside presence on Sunday.

The Cats’ overall legacy and strong finish — recent shameful drubbing at Vanderbilt notwithstanding — may be enough to sneak them in. Overtaking a Florida team playing perhaps for the same bubble spot this Sunday, mixed with a more-than-modest showing in this week’s conference tournament, helps tremendously. After all, the parallel stories of the Cats’ season have been coming from behind and, well, slim victories. That’s no cosmic coincidence.

Louisville, for a change, is in a rock-solid spot, probably looking at a 3-seed, save a conference tourney flop. Going into the showdown at Georgetown, the 12th-ranked Cards (11 RPI) were touted by some as the hottest team in the country, including Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose surprisingly strong Irish were the recent recipients of a Freedom Hall assault.

So, with the game of the year upon them and the collective buzz of the rabble lifting them up, how did the Cards respond? Flatly. I had to recall earlier this season, when U of L couldn’t find its range, couldn’t figure the inside-out O, left opposing shooters 10 feet at the arc. Think BYU or UConn. It wasn’t so brutal, but the Cards’ lack of focus was troubling. At least three times they left shooters open on bad zone rotations or simple missed assignments (aside: how good would Earl Clark be if he found some D?). One of those came with 40 seconds left, when Georgetown’s DaJuan Summers dropped the winning triple.

Fittingly, the Cards blew three chances to tie it; overall, Louisville was 10-18 from the line, 4-18 from three. You can’t win big games without free throws, and you can’t run an inside-out offense without the 3-ball: See Feb. 28 against Notre Dame for a true example of how well this team can run that offense when it’s focused.

Georgetown — who, along with Louisville, is one of the best defensive teams in the country — exploited the Cards’ poor shooting by clogging the middle. David Padgett and Earl Clark had 12 and 11 respectively, but the streetball we’ve seen from this team lately — give-and-go, back door — that Pitino called “beautiful” after the win over Villanova last week didn’t make an appearance.

Silver lining? Sure. An ego check at the threshold of The Madness never hurts, especially when you were blow-for-blow with the game on the line (this could qualify as a “good loss”). But the Cards lacked focus at crucial times. Better last Saturday than next.

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