CRAWFORD BLOG | Thoughts from the ride home after Louisville's l - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD BLOG | Thoughts from the ride home after Louisville's loss at North Carolina

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The following are some thoughts -- stream of consciousness style -- on the ride out of Chapel Hill and back toward Kentucky after Louisville's 72-71 loss to North Carolina on Saturday.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WDRB) — I had this nice theory, and was prepared to run with it in this column.

My hypothesis: Louisville, because of its lack of bench play, is tiring at the end of games and therefore had trouble closing out against a quality team like North Carolina, which outscored it 14-10 in the final 5 minutes of a 72-71 win.

Unfortunately, the entirety of the numbers I looked at from U of L's past five games didn't really support my hypothesis. Some did, but most didn't. I still think it could be a factor for this team against quality opponents, but it's not as big a deal as I originally felt it to be.

Anyway, I'll share what I found.

CRAWFORD | Cards can't close door late, lose to North Carolina

I broke U of L's scoring down by 10-minute quarters over the past five games. U of L outscored its opponent in all of them but the fourth quarter. And its defense seemed to lag as games went on. In the past five games, U of L gave up 64 points in the first “quarters” of those games, 67 in the second, 74 in the third and 97 in the fourth.

Still, while U of L was giving up more points in the fourth quarter, it actually scored more — 91 points.

There's more. U of L is allowing opponents to shoot 45 percent in the second halves of its past five games, while giving up just under 38 percent in the first.

The Cards have forced fewer turnovers in the final 10 minutes of their past five games (14) than in any of the other 10-minute segments (none of which they had forced fewer than 20).

If you look at the Cards' shooting, they shot it better in the first and third quarters (43.2 and 47.0 percent) than in the second and fourth (34.2 and 37 percent).

In other words, maybe I was onto something, but those numbers aren't entirely conclusive.

And this fairly well refutes the point I started with: In the last five minutes of their past five games, U of L has outscored opponents 63-51. The only team to outscore U of L in the final five minutes out of that group is North Carolina.

If a team were truly fatigued, that probably wouldn't be the case.

MORE LIKELY, IS THAT this team just needs to learn how to win in late-game situations against good teams. They made only a handful of mistakes at North Carolina, but against a decent team on the road, that's all it takes. There were a couple of quick shots. A bad turnover. And a couple of hard-luck misses on their final possession.

I was, I have to admit, surprised at some of the anger I heard from fans after this game, though I shouldn't have been. Fans are always angry after losses. I ought to be able to remember that! Still, this was a game in which U of L was not favored. They were 3 1/2-point underdogs (five points when the Vegas line opened).

VIDEO | Rick Pitino after the North Carolina loss

I didn't expect Louisville to win this game, and I wrote that before the game, largely because North Carolina had been pushed into a near-desperation situation by its loss to Notre Dame at home.

Still, U of L played well enough to have a 13-point lead with just under nine minutes to play. And while they failed to execute on a couple of plays down the stretch, still had an opportunity to win it on a decent three-point look by Wayne Blackshear and a put-back try by Terry Rozier at the buzzer.

One fan blustered to me, “It's the same thing year after year.”

Well, yes, you're going to lose some close ones every year. But that does bring up a point I want to make.

THIS TEAM NEEDS TO LEARN SOME OF THE SAME LESSONS previous teams have learned. It needs to be a bit smarter with the lead. The Cards took a couple of quick shots, with the lead, late. You want to be a championship team, you play smart with the lead. You want to be a good team that flames out early, pay no attention to time and score.

Even U of L's championship team had to learn this lesson through hard experience.

But why must it be learned “year after year?” Because every year is a new team. These lessons are like my vacation days. They don't carry over from one year to the next, in most cases.

I HAVE TO ADMIT, I FELT BAD FOR Wayne Blackshear after his potential game-winner didn't fall. I don't care who wins games. Either way, I have to go down, do my interviews, write my stories. Sometimes, a game column from a loss is better than one from a win. Sometimes it's the other way around.

But you do get to know some of these players a little bit, if only from watching them over the course of several years.

I can't help but wonder how Blackshear's season might've been changed had his late three gone down. That's how close the game is — an inch in another direction and he's the guy who knocked off North Carolina in the Dean Dome.

There's no point in dwelling on such things. I asked a bad question of Pitino to close out his news conference on Saturday, just in an effort to draw him out a little bit about Blackshear. He wasn't biting. I knew as I was asking it, “this isn't going to work.” Kind of like that runner Chris Jones took in the lane late.

SO WHAT IS THE PROBLEM? I think this team's main issue is that it needs its bench to eat up a few more minutes than it is. Montrezl Harrell is out there too much. He looks exhausted. He isn't running the court and crashing the boards like he is known to do.

At the same time, the nature of the game has changed with U of L moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference. There are going to be games — and Saturday's was one of them — where you just have to score points to win. No matter how well you play on defense, there are teams who are skilled enough to make shots against you.

The good news for Louisville is that it appears increasingly capable of doing that. Chris Jones and Terry Rozier are establishing themselves as one of the top backcourts in the nation. Harrell didn't have a great night at UNC, but he's solid. Blackshear still needs to be more aggressive, but he was the only Cardinal at 50 percent or better from three when he launched his late one that bounced off, and he finished with 10 points.

This team is 14-2. It has beaten every team it was supposed to beat to this point, and lost to the two teams it has played who were favored to beat it. It's not a dominant, overpowering team. It never was going to be. But it can be a very good team, and can get better over the next couple of months.

Terry Rozier is blossoming into a dominant player. He's averaging 21 per game over his past eight. He had 25 against North Carolina. He was the only U of L player to score in the final seven minutes. And that's a problem.

U of L's bench has scored two points in its last two games. The Cards have outscored their opponent's bench just once in the past five, and has an overall deficit of 82-29 in those games. Now, this bench isn't going to score a lot of points. But it can play more productive minutes, and should as the season goes on. It has to.

PITINO WAS PRETTY UPBEAT after the game. He can see that the pieces are there, and that if he can get the right improvement, he can have a team playing very well come the end of February.

Don't forget, on the last weekend of the regular season, U of L gets Notre Dame and Virginia at home. Those could be two very big wins heading into the postseason.

Of course, there's a lot of basketball to be played between now and then, including a visit from Duke, and one from North Carolina, and a trip to Virginia, among other games.

SOME OF THE QUESTIONS U of L gets from reporters on the road are funny. Someone asked Harrell what it was like to play in an atmosphere like that, in front of nearly 22,000 people, and he looked at him as if he were from outer space.

U of L played in front of a bigger crowd in its last home game. It played in some difficult road venues in the Big East, against teams ranked just as high. Everything in the ACC is new, of course, but more than the travel or crowds or arenas, the differing styles of play are the challenge.

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