CRAWFORD | Seven thoughts on Louisville heading into the NCAA To - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Seven thoughts on Louisville heading into the NCAA Tournament

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — It's a strange selection Sunday for the University of Louisville basketball team. For the first time since 2011, the Cardinals don't have a conference championship trophy to keep them company during the selection.

They've had a really good regular season. Pitino told reporters after the Virginia win, “I don't know if you realize how good a season this has been.”

That point shouldn't be lost. I know the expectations and preseason ranking were high. But when you consider that the freshmen haven't progressed as quickly or contributed as much as originally expected, to be 24-8 heading into the NCAA Tournament is an impressive thing — even if there were a couple of games in there that the Cards feel as if they should've picked off.

I wasn't surprised to see them lose to North Carolina to open the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C. I thought the Tar Heels were playing well and had underachieved relative to their talent for much of the season. I was surprised to see the Cards totally wilt in the final six minutes.

Regardless, let's take a look at the key issues facing this U of L team heading into the tourney:

1. FIGURING OUT THE FIVE SPOT. Pitino told The Courier-Journal's Jeff Greer that there's a lot riding on freshman Chinanu Onuaku heading into the tournament — that the Cards haven't gotten a blocked shot or a putback from him in two games, and that has to change. He's right about that, but I'd counter that even when Onuaku has played well (at Chapel Hill, for instance), it hasn't always meant victory for the Cards. The big problem with U of L's five spot is that when the Cards set their high ball screen for the pick-and-roll, the defense doesn't have to have any respect for the screener. Virginia and North Carolina both simply ignored the screener and went after Terry Rozier coming off that screen. 

Early in the year, Pitino realized his fives weren't going to be scoring threats and had them start to clear away from the lane instead of rolling to the basket, so as to leave more driving room for his guards. But no matter what you do with those guys, it's still five on four on the offensive end. After the ACC Tournament loss to North Carolina, Pitino talked briefly about using Anas Mahmoud for offensive purposes. That's a good idea. Pitino was down on Onuaku for not blocking shots when he has the chance. Even so, Onuaku ranks 77th in the nation with block percentage of 7.8 percent. That means he blocks 7.8 percent of the opponent's two-point shots when he's on the court. Only two other players on the team ranks higher. Mangok Mathiang has a block percentage of 8 percent. And Mahmoud is just a hair under 9 percent. Mathiang is far and away the best offensive rebounded on the team — pulling down 14.4 percent of U of L's missed shots all by himself when he is in the game.

Regardless, there are late season “tweaks,” and there is late-season searching. It's a bit late in the game to try to make fundamental changes to the way your team plays, but we'll see how Pitino's shuffling works.

2. COULD PITINO GO BIG? One intriguing possibility for Pitino would be to go big. Use Mahmoud at the four and Mathiang at the five and Harrell at the three. He'd have to use Rozier at the point and Blackshear at the two. This wouldn't be a lineup to use exclusively, but might be interesting because of its defensive, shot blocking and matchup possibilities. It would be contingent on Mahmoud's ability to hit the occasional mid-range jumper, but would give U of L some size it has lacked, and take advantage of some of its bigs. It might be a non-starter. But is worth looking at.

3. WHERE HAS LEVITCH BEEN? Pitino told Greer he's going to start to use Levitch instead of Anton Gill, which is fine, but it makes you wonder where Levitch has been. All he does when you put him in is make plays, make shots, run the offense, and make contributions. If he's going to get more minutes, I don't think that's a bad thing. 

4. WHO REALLY IS THE KEY? Pitino said he thinks Onuaku is the key. I think the key, and this is not a misprint, is Wayne Blackshear. Rather quietly, Blackshear has really played well over the last couple of weeks. The problem is that the team isn't necessarily looking for him offensively. Part of that is his fault. He could move more without the ball. But part of that is that it's time that this team develop the unshakeable habit of looking for Montrezl Harrell first and Blackshear second. Blackshear is driving, shooting a good percentage, making free throws, and improving. When Harrell gets it, good things happen. The Cards, in general, have been pretty good defensively. They just need to find a way to avoid the scoring droughts they've been having. Blackshear seems to be a sensible place to look during those times, and having him set the high ball screen from time to time might be a decent way to force something open, because he's a guy the defense has to account for.

5. DON'T FORGET THE PITINO MAGIC. The one thing I'd say about this team is that, with the exception of its Notre Dame loss, it has played pretty well down the stretch this season. It's not as far away from putting things together as it looks. It was better than North Carolina — in North Carolina — for 30 minutes this week. And to be honest, a week of practice this week is more valuable for this team than a week of banging heads with Virginia and Duke or Notre Dame. Anyone thinking about writing this team off wasn't watching UConn last season, or for that matter, Pitino's teams in a lot of seasons.

6. LITTLE THINGS. Rozier needs to become a facilitator and make better decisions on when to pull the trigger and when to keep the offense moving. Quentin Snider only needs to shoot threes when he's spotted up and receiving the ball. And the Cards have got to make free throws. In their last two losses, U of L shot 60.5 percent from the line 23 of 38. In their win, they were 80 percent (8 of 10). Free throws matter.

7. WHERE WILL THEY BE? A lot depends on whether U of L is a No. 4 or No. 5 seed. If they're a No. 4 seed, they committee will make more of an effort to keep them geographically closer to home. If they're a No. 5, that protection goes away. Either way, because U of L is hosting a regional in the KFC Yum! Center, there's no telling where they'll wind up for their early round games. Most bracketologists agree, however, all roads in the first rounds lead to a potential Midwest Region matchup against Kentucky should they advance.

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