CRAWFORD | Louisville players vow to move past Jones' dismissal, - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville players vow to move past Jones' dismissal, and finish strong

Posted: Updated: photo by Michelle Hutchins. photo by Michelle Hutchins.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WDRB) — In other news, on Thursday, the University of Louisville broke ground on $14.5 million academic center to be constructed on the south side of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, and it announced that basketball senior Wayne Blackshear has been named an Academic All-American.

Those are significant good news stories. And they were lost amid the tidal wave of coverage of allegations of rape and sodomy against dismissed basketball player Chris Jones. It's the way of the world.

For the U of L basketball team — and the university as a whole, in fact — getting back to business as usual will be difficult as the Jones story moves forward.

Cardinals' basketball players reacted to the Jones news with “shock and disappointment,” according to U of L coach Rick Pitino.

But he doesn't expect those emotions to follow them onto the court. U of L will travel to Tallahassee for its final road game of the season at Florida State at noon Saturday.

The U of L players already knew of the allegations against Jones, at least in a general way, when they faced Georgia Tech Monday night. And while execution may have been a problem at times in that game, Pitino insists that emotions weren't.

Now at stake for this team is how it will be remembered. Two players in that locker room already have championship rings. They will be champions no matter how the season winds up. But they have a chance to give something else to U of L's program before they go — a new narrative.

If this team flames out, the season might well be remembered for little more than Jones' transgressions -- and Harrell and Blackshear particularly deserve better. If it can pull together and make a run, it has a chance to change what people remember.

“We lost a brother,” Blackshear said after the Georgia Tech win. “And he was a great player, great defender, shooter, ball-handler and passer. But now what we have to do is focus on winning. We have to trust each other and lean on each other and really pay more attention now to scouting.”

The players also have to focus more on communication. Pitino hasn't hidden the fact that this team has had a strange chemistry all season. The upperclassmen were one clique, the freshmen a different one. Montrezl Harrell gave up his captaincy because he couldn't seem to get the knack of being patient and encouraging the younger players.

Suffice it to say, with the loss of Jones and facing the prospect of a quick exit from the postseason unless they develop  new weapons, the lines of communication between the two groups have opened significantly.

“We're going through a lot of adversity, but teams have to deal with that,” sophomore Terry Rozier said. “I feel like we're going to come more together as a team. We lost a good defensive, floor-general guy who was a senior, so we need more from our freshmen, we need them to step up, and there's more engagement going on with them right now, because we need them.”

More engagement. And more opportunity for the Cardinals' young players. Freshman Shaqquan Aaron got his first career start at Georgia Tech. Quentin Snider will be the primary point guard moving forward. Chinanu Onuaku has been playing all season, but had one of his better overall games against Georgia Tech. Anas Mahmoud is getting more playing time. Aaron said that the freshman class, after a long season in the shadows, feels ready.

“I just want to play,” Aaron said. “You practice hard all season and you want to play. Q has been getting into games and having fun, and Anas is starting to get to play more. So it's just a matter of us taking this opportunity now to show coach that we're ready.”

Pitino likes to talk about life outside of basketball, and to contrast it with life between the lines. I've spent hours talking to him about this subject, because it's a strong theme that runs through his last book, which I worked with him to write. Between the lines is a big deal with Pitino.

He believes a lot of people are between the lines in life, but living as if they're not. They wouldn't stomach their favorite player texting from the bench during a game — but they spend all day at work texting or fooling around on social media. He tries to tell people that they need to value and take more seriously that time they spend between the lines, whatever lines their particular work might bring.

It's worth noting, when his life and career were threatening to run off track during an extortion scandal, between the lines he led the program to the first No. 1 ranking in school history, and regular season and conference tournament championships in what was called the toughest conference in Big East history.

He has some experience. And he referenced this line of thinking when asked about his team during a news conference on Thursday.

“No matter what happens in your life, personal tragedy, death in the family, when you show up for work, regardless of the adversity you are facing, it's what I call between the lines,” Pitino said. “When you step between the lines you are to give extraordinary effort and tremendous focus. That's your job. We all go through these trials and tribulations, with our families, with our friends, seeing loved ones pass, and we've still got go the next day between the lines, and that's what we are right now. We're between the lines. And we've got to go out and do a great job.

“. . . We're all saddened by it, but we have a job to do. So we're not going to lay down on this situation as a basketball team. Now we could get beat three games because the teams we're playing could beat us. But it's not going to be because of these incidents and the fact that we're saddened.”

In addition to effort and opening up the rotation, Pitino may have other decisions to make with his team. After removing Jones from the team on Sunday, he had little time to adjust things before playing Georgia Tech on Monday night. This week, he's had some time to get ready for Florida State.

What changes might that mean? One option at his disposal might be more set plays, which might simplify things for some of his younger players. Another might be more man-to-man defense. Part of the effectiveness of U of L's 2-3 zone is its complexity. But developing that ability to switch from zone to man-to-man multiple times during a possession also creates complexity for its own players. Aaron said something interesting to me about this after the Georgia Tech game.

“Usually when we go man-to-man five, we seem to play better and faster. Maybe we need to make an adjustment,” said Aaron, who is no Hall of Fame coach, but he might be onto something. “In our two (2-3 zone defense) we play, it's tough, the rotations, you've really got to pay attention, and sometimes in a game you're thinking more about where you need to be instead of focusing on guarding the man. But in the man-to-man you know you're guarding your man. But they're both effective defenses. You just have to pay attention. There's teams that just can't score on our two. It's just a matter of paying attention and learning.”

Without question, Rozier is going to have to be sharp for U of L to win games. Harrell cannot have off nights. And Blackshear is going to have to be better. He's yet again being asked to reach down and come up with some leadership in the final weeks of his U of L career.

“I've told them, look, it's time our team changes,” Pitino said. “Now the freshmen have to play. I'm going to play you. . . . I've seen a major difference in Shaqquan the past five days, and that's why I started him. . . . We're a totally different basketball team now. Everybody's got to play. Everybody's got to mature.”

Harrell said he has taken Pitino's message of change to heart. He said he knows he has to be a leader, captaincy or not, and that he has to build up the young players.

“You saw, even when we were down (13 at Georgia Tech), at one of our lowest points, we still banded together as a team and found a way to come out with a victory,” Harrell said. “It's important for me to be big energy right now, and let guys feed off the passion I have for the game. We're trying to communicate with (the freshmen) as much as we can, talk to them about taking the right first steps. . . . These last couple of weeks, everybody has been counting us out, and that's going to be fine. We're all right with that. We're going to work through some things. Wait till March rolls around.”

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