LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The subject of the week has been Chris Jones' impending return to the University of Louisville basketball team, and how Cardinals' coach Rick Pitino will fold him back into a unit that, over the past four games, has played its best basketball of the season.
Jones is expected to return to practice when the team resumes workouts on Friday, and it's a much more cohesive group he'll join than the one he left after a loss to Memphis at the KFC Yum! Center. The Cards pummeled South Florida 86-47 in Tampa Wednesday night, tying a school record for victory margin in a conference game.
It was the fourth straight win for a team that appears to be figuring out how it can best play together, and how to play defensively. The Cardinals outscored USF 35-6 in points off turnovers. They outscored the Bulls 17-3 on second-chance points. They outscored the Bulls 36-3 from beyond the three-point arc.
Part of the Cards' momentum has been the complementary styles of senior Russ Smith and freshman Terry Rozier. At point guard, Rozier had nine points, five assists three rebounds and no turnovers at South Florida, and in general seems to "get" Smith, who isn't always an easy player to play beside, according to Pitino.
Before the game at South Florida, U of L radio play-by-play voice Paul Rogers asked Pitino about that on his pregame show produced by Nelligan Sports.
"It takes an unusual person to be Russ Smith's partner," Pitino said. "Peyton Siva was a prime example. He knew where Russ' weaknesses were. He knew that if he sprinted away Russ was going to miss him every now and then, and you don't get frustrated by that, because you know Russ is going to help us win, he's going to do things that make the team better, so you don't get frustrated with Russ' inadequacies. Terry knows how valuable Russ Smith is and that he's not doing anything intentional if he misses, it's just that he's six-foot and doesn't always see."
Jones is a major player for the Cards. In fact, in his postgame discussion with Bob Valvano, Pitino was asked, in response to some postgame news conference discussion, about the notion that the Cards might be a better team without Jones." Pitino responded immediately, "That's 100 percent not true."
Jones and his 11.3 points per game are significant for the Cards, and Pitino expects that he'll provide much-needed depth when he returns from his strained oblique muscle this week. He expects Jones to be available when the Cards play host to Cincinnati next week, and expects him to contribute. But he also suggested that Jones has had more of a mental adjustment hurdle coming in as the reigning junior college player of the year than Rozier has had as a true freshman.
"People have different makeups and it takes time to get adjusted to what I call the Louisville way — being adjusted, being focused and understanding that you play for the name on the front, and regardless of what the name on the back does it's all about winning," Pitino said. "And certain people have adjustment periods to make. Chris Jones is going through an adjustment period. Terry Rozier has bought in right away to everything Louisville is about. Everybody is different."
There's little doubt that Rozier, who has sought out Smith as a kind of mentor, stayed up late nights getting to know him, and who publicly has praised him as the best guard in college basketball, fits well with Smith.
Jones and Smith, meanwhile, have similar styles on the court. Both are gifted dribble-penetrators with advanced offensive skills.
With the team having made strides over the past four games, Pitino knows it's important that they not give that back.
Smith is playing some of his best basketball of the season. In American Athletic Conference play, he's shooting 61 percent (19 of 31) from three-point range. Rozier in conference play has 20 assists and only six turnovers while averaging nine points and nearly four rebounds a game.
But there's more than complementary guard play at work in the Cards' recent run. They're going inside more to Montrezl Harrell, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds on Wednesday. And a big part of that, Pitino said, is the play of Luke Hancock, who also had 14 points on Wednesday and who has been running a two-man game with Harrell to the benefit of both. The emphasis on post play expanded to freshman Mangok Mathiang at USF. He finished with 10 points.
"Our guys are making a conscious effort to go to Mangok as well as Montrezl in the low post," Pitino said. "Our guys have worked very hard. Our first 15 games of the season, we guys weren't going inside. I told them, you're running pick-and-rolls instead of going inside, and if we go inside it will make your pick-and-rolls more effective. And tonight we did a good job mixing it up, and it's good that our post guys are seeing the fruits of their labors."
All of that needs to be maintained, even as the Cards get one of their top scorers at guard back. For Jones, who has watched team chemistry solidify during his injury, the challenge will be to re-insert himself in a way that enhances what is going on. Pitino said it should be a positive thing for the Cardinals, that it will reduce the minutes played by Rozier and Smith and give them a hedge against foul trouble.
"We're much better with Chris Jones," Pitino told Valvano. "Now I will say this, Chris has to come around and understand Russ better. Terry and Peyton understand Russ. It's almost like me with Russ, if I yank him for doing a couple of things I don't like, then I take away the greatness of Russ Smith. It's the same way (with Jones), if Russ misses you, it's because he's going so quick he may not see you, and you've got to react with great body language and react the right way. Terry has gotten used to Russ. Chris has got to get used to him a little bit more. I think Terry and Russ are a better backcourt right now, because they have blended in like Peyton did with Russ. Peyton understood Russ better than anybody in America."