LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The University of Louisville has lost three American Athletic Conference games. It had the lead in all of them with four minutes to play.
Think about that for a second. A team with four key returnees from an NCAA title team, with players who keyed 12-point comebacks in both the national semifinals and finals, has failed this season to preserve late leads.
It is, frankly, the most troubling of red flags facing the Cardinals as they approach the postseason, with difficult games against ranked teams — at SMU and at home against Connecticut — before they get there. A year ago, of course, having the ball with the lead was Peyton Siva time. He made the right plays, and his free throws, more often than not.
This season, the Cardinals led Memphis by five with 3:50 to play at the KFC Yum! Center. They led Cincinnati by three with 5:01 left at home. They led Memphis by eight with 4:46 left on the road last weekend. From those points of those three games, they were outscored 37-6. In that stretch, they went 1-for-18 from the field. In the same stretch, they sent opponents to the line 21 times, and they made 19, far more than you'd want in late-game situations where you have the lead already.
Looking at the individual games:
— In their home loss to Memphis, the Cards led by five with 3:50 remaining. They were outscored 14-3 from that point on. U of L went 1-for-5 (missed threes by Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and Wayne Blackshear, and a missed layup by Montrezl Harrell) in that stretch, made one of two free throws and had two Hancock turnovers. Memphis went 4-for-5 in the same stretch, all the makes on dunks or layups, and made 5 of 6 free throws.
— The Cards led by three with five minutes to play, then were outscored 8-2 in the final 5:01 in their home loss to Cincinnati. They went 0-for-5 from the field in that stretch (two missed threes by Luke Hancock, one by Russ Smith, and missed layups by Russ Smith and Terry Rozier.) Cincinnati went 1-for-6 in the same stretch, but made six free throws.
— In Saturday's loss at Memphis, U of L led by eight with 4:46 left. It was outscored 15-1 from that point, going 0-of-8 from the field, seven of those three-pointers, with a turnover. It also missed two of three free-throws, one of those the front end of a bonus. Memphis went 3-for-3 from the field and made 8 of 9 free throws in the same stretch.
And that's not all. Even in its one-point win at Cincinnati, U of L led by nine with 5:13 to play — then had to come from behind to win at the buzzer. They sent Cincinnati to the line 12 times in the final 5:04 of the game, and the Bearcats made 11 of those. They lost the lead with the help of four turnovers, and some missed shots, including a pair by Hancock.
There are a couple of things at play here. First, this is a Louisville team that has to make shots. Hancock took the dagger shot at Memphis, a three with the Cards up six points with under four minutes to play. The shot looked good, it rimmed out, that was a major letdown.
If even some of those shots fall, it changes the script. But they haven't been falling. Chris Jones has had trouble getting late shots to go. In the four games mentioned here, Hancock is 0-for-6 from the field down the stretch.
At Memphis, the Cards had huge missed free throws by Russ Smith (the front end) and Chris Jones. They've had turnovers.
And beyond that, they've had significant defensive problems.
The ability of opponents to get to the rim — and to the free-throw line — late in these losses is perhaps the most troubling, especially after the Cards have done what it took to get the lead and to put themselves into position to win.
Diagnosing the fix is a lot more difficult than isolating the problems. The numbers don't lie. But the reasons behind the numbers are open to interpretation.
Pitino thought his team celebrated too soon and lost focus after going up eight at Memphis.
The Cards also seemed to get a bit passive offensively. They haven't turned the ball over much all season, but have coughed it up in bad situations in these losses.
In general, it looks as if the U of L guards, Jones and Smith especially, may take too much into their hands — and onto their shoulders — in these situations. But Hancock, who was the Cards' steadiest hand in close games last season, also has had some stumbles.
"That's what we miss," he said. "That's the key ingredient to what we miss on this team. I kind of feel like Russ is a legitimate leader. But ... nobody on this team is Peyton Siva when it comes to being a leader and understanding if there's something wrong, you've got to speak on it. If it's something on the court, he's going to get in your ear about it. That's probably one of the biggest things we're missing. I know a lot of people would say Gorgui's defense or Gorgui's shot-blocking. But we've got players who can block shots and do things like that. But you can't really replace a leader.
"It doesn't matter who loses games, wins games early in the season," Ware added in his ESPN interview. "March is all that really matters. And Coach [Pitino] is one of the big people on getting better as the season goes. So I feel like we're really starting to get there."
In the end, if this team is going to win, it's going to make big shots in close games. Sometimes, against good teams, that's all it comes down to. You can play good defense, but they're going to make big plays, too.
Transition defense late in games. Getting better looks in the final minutes. Fewer "panic" turnovers and fewer fouls.
It's all elementary basketball. But little things have cost the Cardinals a lot in the conference season.
Cardinals' coach Rick Pitino says he has confidence it can be fixed.
"We're still going to be a good tournament team," he said after the Memphis loss.
In some way, the manner of the Memphis loss obscured the progress U of L made from the last time it played Memphis, when it was outscored badly in the paint.
The personnel situation probably is now what it is going to be. U of L fans have been waiting all season for the light to go on for Wayne Blackshear. They're still waiting. Pitino, who criticized his team for premature celebration at Memphis, had a huge embrace for Jones early in the second half after he opened the half with a couple of quick steals and an assist. That's the way they need Jones to play, creating for others. He wound up shooting 1-for-10 in his return to his hometown, and with the conference tournament there, that's a concern. Pitino took some criticism for not putting Russ Smith back into the game with four fouls earlier at Memphis, but he had not played well in the second half. In fact, Terry Rozier was the best second-half guard the Cards had. Mangok Mathiang got lost defensively several times. Hancock had a key late mistake on the go-ahead three by Memphis.
Smith, more than anyone, is the key. He's at his best when he is completely dialed in to Pitino's game plan -- as he was during most of the NCAA Tournament last season. If he can stay in that zone late in games, as he was late at Cincinnati, it could go a long way toward fixing the Cards closing issues.
There's still work to do. A little more mental toughness. A little more timely shooting. Fewer mental errors and fouls on defense late. Small things, but not necessarily easy things to come by for a team with little margin for error.