CRAWFORD | Seven thoughts on Louisville hoops heading into the r - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Seven thoughts on Louisville hoops heading into the regular season

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — One good half. That's what University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino wanted from his team in Sunday's exhibition against Bellarmine, and that's what he got in an 82-57 win in the Cardinals' final exhibition game.

Calling his team's first half “about as well as we've played,” Pitino said that if his team can take that level of play to Puerto Rico to face Minnesota, he'll be pretty happy.

The Cardinals shot 56.7 percent in the half (17-31) and held a Bellarmine team that shot 56.6 percent against Cincinnati two nights prior to just 38.6 for the game. They led 49-20 at the break.

“That was a great half of basketball in every phase of the game,” Pitino said. “Pressing, offense, defense, ball movement, rebounding. It was really outstanding. Chris Jones did a tremendous job. All the guys did a great job in the first half. And obviously when you have a lead, your press is not as good, your defense is not as good, but when you can keep a team shooting 32 percent and 1 for 12 from the three like Bellarmine, you're playing great defense because - regardless of Division II, Division I, Division III - they score on everybody. They shoot on everybody and our guys were very focused, very alert with great respect.”

Some thoughts on the Cardinals as they prepare to open the season against Minnesota on Friday night.

1). PITINO SOUNDED CONFIDENT. For the first time, really, in this preseason, Pitino sounded something like confident when asked if his team is where he hoped it would be at this early stage.

“If we can play the first half like we did tonight - forget the opponent because this team can do it against a lot of others,” Pitino said. “This team (Bellarmine) may wear down in the second half and the more talented bigger team will wear them out, but I don't think too many teams can do to Bellarmine what we did in the first half."

2). IS BLACKSHEAR BACK? Wayne Blackshear's more aggressive, physically conditioned, tough-guy transformation has been touted all offseason, and fans have had a chance to see it now in a pair of exhibitions. The idea is that he's returned to the more bruising form he had as a high school player. But the jury likely will remain out on the senior until he delivers against a big-time opponent.

Blackshear had 16 points on 6 of 12 shooting and four rebounds against Bellarmine, after putting up 22 points with four rebounds in the Cards' exhibition opener against Barry.

Pitino isn't ready to say he's all the way there.

“I believe he is about 80 percent of the way there,” he said. “Remember, in high school you are bigger than everybody else, so you can bully them. He still doesn't have a steal and doesn't have an assist. I think he is 80 percent of the way there. I think he is playing great basketball right now.”

3). HARRELL PUTS UP NUMBERS, BUT HAS BEEN CRUISING. These two exhibition games haven't been games where Montrezl Harrell was needed at his All-American best. They were about others building confidence, not him. Still, it was a bit unusual to see him not running the court like his life depended on it every play in the opening exhibition against Barry. He looked a little more like his old self on Sunday, though the assumption is that when the ball tips off for real on Friday, he'll be fierce as ever. And let it be said, his mouthpiece machinations are at midseason levels already.

He had an efficient 17 points on 6 of 9 shooting with nine rebounds and sat most of the second half against Bellarmine. He also did more of his work in the paint on Sunday, as opposed to the perimeter. He had 18 points but just five rebounds in the first exhibition.

“He's worked really, really hard on his free throw shooting, his shooting, his three-point shooting,” Pitino said. “He's worked really hard on all phases of the game. I still want to see him get in the low post and make some good low-post moves as well. But I thought tonight he played really well. I didn't think he played necessarily like he did last year in the first game, but I think he was more like himself from the second game.”

4). WHERE DO THINGS STAND AT THE FIVE SPOT? Mangok Mathiang has been good, not spectacular, in two exhibition games, but he continues to improve all the time. And he has lots of help. Chinanu Onuaku didn't play much Sunday because of a minor practice injury, but looks ready to contribute. Anas Mahmoud, who started Sunday, is the most intriguing big man because of his height, and what appears to be a good bit of natural basketball ability. But Mahmoud lacks physical strength, and doesn't yet grasp the intensity of the college game, Pitino said.

“He has to learn how to play at the level of intensity that everybody else is playing,” Pitino said of Mahmoud. “That is something that is very tough to teach. You grow up for 21 years playing one way at a pace and then suddenly you are playing at the University of Louisville with a frenetic pace - a very intense way to play — and it is an adjustment period. So, he will be fine. A lot of times it looks like you are not playing hard because you are weak."

Regardless, Mathiang will be the man at the five spot to open the season.

“Mangok's gotten better,” Pitino said. “What I'm hoping is that Mangok can give us what Montrezl gave us last year - a lot of blocked shots, a lot of dunks, just a lot of hustle plays."

5). GUARDS ARE GOOD TO GO. There was nothing not to like about U of L's guard play in two exhibition wins. Terry Rozier is smooth and athletic and forces nothing. He's tough on both ends and can rebound as well as any guard in the nation. Chris Jones' shot was falling Sunday, and when that happens, he's tough to deal with. His quick hands were a problem for Bellarmine's guards, and they won't be the last to be bothered by them.

Off the bench, Anton Gill and Quentin Snider don't bring as much defensive pressure, but they're skilled offensive players.

6). OPPOSING VIEW. Scott Davenport has watched Louisville his whole life, and has watched Pitino's Louisville teams since coaching for him. He was impressed with the Cardinals' first half against his team.

“People ask me about their team and you can pick apart individuals but when they play that well together at both ends, they're a heck of a basketball team, they just smother you,” Davenport said. “They protect the rim so well that they can smother you so easily. . . . We shot 56.6 on Monday night (at Cincinnati) and we shot 38.6 tonight. That tells you about the caliber of defense, they are a super defensive team.”

Pitino has five reliable starters — Rozier and Jones, Blackshear, Harrell and Mathiang. Onuaku is ready to come off the bench, as are Gill and Snider. The others will come along more slowly. Mahmoud figures to get some minutes early. Jaylen Johnson, who made his first exhibition appearance on Sunday, is still a good bit away physically but showed his ability in his first, brief action.

If this team can rebound and avoid serious foul trouble, it will give itself a chance. And it'll be tested on both counts in its opener.

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