CRAWFORD | Five things to watch (and one pick) for Louisville-No - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Five things to watch (and one pick) for Louisville-Northern Iowa

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AP photo. AP photo.
SEATTLE (WDRB) — If the University of Louisville basketball team were an automobile, you could say it has been in the shop for much of the season.

Coach Rick Pitino has tinkered with his lineup, messed with the captaincy, rotated the centers, and toward the very end of the season decided to overhaul his defense.

It is, in retrospect, a fairly amazing thing that he has won 25 games with one of the worst three-point shooting teams in NCAA Division I, and which lacks a center who can consistently catch the ball in the post. And he's done it against a schedule ranked No. 32 in the nation, in what the NCAA Tournament is proving may well have been the toughest conference in basketball.

All of that is well and good, but what does it mean today against Northern Iowa? The Cardinals find themselves in the unusual situation of being two-point underdogs in a Round of 32 game.

Sophomore guard Terry Rozier said he's not surprised. (Warning: No respect card coming.)

“I don't feel like we've gotten a lot of respect all year,” Rozier said. “Did we earn respect when we beat Virginia? No. We've always been looked at as an underdog. Northern Iowa is going to have a lot more fans out here. But you know, that helps us lean on one another and come together as brothers.”

But don't get the idea that U of L doesn't realize what it is up against in Northern Iowa, which is 31-3 this season and plays a nine-man rotation.

“Our players, from film right now, are very, very full of respect for Northern Iowa,” Pitino said. “They realize that this is one of -- now we played Duke, we played Virginia twice, we played Kentucky, we played Indiana, Ohio State — we have played some outstanding teams. This team is as good as any team we have played this year with maybe the exception of Kentucky. So, our players know that. They're ranked ninth and 11th in the country, so they're higher ranked than us.”

TRANSCRIPT | Rick Pitino talks about Northern Iowa

And Pitino may well be back under the hood of this team looking for another change that might spark the Cardinals back to the Sweet 16, the round in which he has enjoyed his greatest success as a coach, and where the program has been 20 times — more than all but three programs in college basketball (Kentucky and North  Carolina, making their 26th, and Duke, with 23).

Five things to watch in tonight's 9:40 p.m. EDT game, which will be televised on TBS.

1. PITINO PONDERING A CHANGE AT THE FIVE. He didn't talk much about it. In fact, he gave it only a passing mention in his lengthy press conference on Saturday. But sometimes the most important things are in the fine print. He had been asked about an injury to Chinanu Onuaku in Friday night's game (Onuaku is fine), but the end of his response was this: “I'm not sure whether we're going to go with Mangok (Mathiang) or go with Montrezl (Harrell) at five and probably somebody else at four. I'm not sure right now.” There's a possibility Harrell could start at center opposite NIU's best player, Seth Tuttle, with freshman Jaylen Johnson getting the first start of his career in a Round of 32 NCAA Tournament game at power forward. Johnson has been playing well in practice. Pitino has been looking for ways to get him on the court. NIU has five players who can challenge the Cardinals offensively, but not an extremely tall lineup. At the very least, look for this lineup at points during the game, if not at the start. UNI's Seth Tuttle plays the center position, but he runs the Panthers' offense. He leads them in scoring, rebounds and assists.

“To have a guy playing -- he's more of a power forward, the body type — but playing center for us and doing a lot of what a point guard does and would do,” Jacobson said. “Starting quarterback, starting pitcher, he's just got that kind of mentality and that kind of command of his teammates and of the situation. The thing I would tell you to go a long with it is, all of the good things that have come his way, all of the success that he's had individually and our team has had. He hasn't changed at all. I think that's probably his greatest attribute as a leader. He's, if anything, he's a small town kid. I think a lot of people have read about that by now. If anything, he's become more of the small town kid and even more humble and not gone the other way. That, to me, is really defining his leadership. That's made a huge difference for our team.”

TRANSCRIPT | Northern Iowa coach says his experienced team ready for U of L

2. NIU SOLID AT BOTH ENDS. Northern Iowa has played only three ranked teams all season, which is why it sits with a No. 5 seed despite its impressive record. But two of those games were double-digit wins. The Panthers beat Iowa 56-44 back on Dec. 20, and beat Wichita State by 16 at home, 70-54, on Jan. 21. The Shockers beat NIU in Wichita 74-60 on Feb. 28. But if you're a follower of Ken Pomeroy's efficiency numbers, this should jump out you. One of the best indicators of a team's Final Four ability is whether it ranks in the Top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. (Top 10 in both is the best indicator.) Only two teams in this year's field rank in the top 10 in both — Kentucky and Arizona. Only two others rank in the top 20 in both — Utah and Northern Iowa. 

3. CARDS NEED BLACKSHEAR'S BIGGEST GAME. Opponents seem set on taking Terry Rozier away. If some mock drafts and analysts have cooled on the sophomore's game, opposing coaches have not. He's facing major efforts to keep the ball out of his hands at crunch time. He said that UC Irvine was the first team to “go red” on him defensively in the second half — play a complete box and one to take him out of the game and make someone else win it for Louisville. But don't be surprised if there are others. Midway through the conference season, Rozier led the ACC in scoring. It took him a little while to stop forcing it when the league's defenses adjusted, and opponents in tournament play are likely to continue the respect that Rozier got defensively at the end of conference play. He needs to be a facilitator for Louisville. The more Blackshear can burn defenses, the more Rozier is going to get chances to score. The UC Irvine game was significant for Blackshear for a lot of reasons, but the biggest was that he got cold from three-point range, but didn't allow that to stop him. He drove to the basket to score, got to the free-throw line, and remained a key factor in the game. His 20 field goal attempts were a career high. As much as tonight would be a good time for one of those games where Rozier gets in a zone, the more likely scenario is for Blackshear to continue on his postseason run, and Rozier to reap some benefits from it.

CRAWFORD | Wayne's World: At long last, Blackshear getting the last word

4. THE BENCH WILL BE A FACTOR, ONE WAY OR ANOTHER. Actually, I should say it this way. We know the bench will be a factor for Northern Iowa. It outscored Wyoming's bench 41-2. The Panthers rotate four players off the bench and all of them can play. And a lot of them can shoot. Even big deficits don't faze this team. UNI fell behind Illinois State by 18 in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game, but still rallied for a nine-point win. They did it because of their defense (despite the deficit, they still only allowed 60 points) and because of their depth. They are a second-half team. In three MVC tournament games, they outscored opponents by 51 points in the second half. VCU had some success against UNI with pressure and an up-tempo game early in the season, but took two overtimes to beat the Panthers at home, 93-87. So the Cardinals need to get something off the bench. They don't necessarily need points as much as they need minutes. Anas Mahmoud, absent a physical enforcer for NIU, may have a chance to come off the bench and do some things. Mathiang and Onuaku need to contribute something. Shaqquan Aaron has been injured for quite a few practices in the past week, but if ever there were a game for him to get some spot duty, this might be it, in front of his hometown family and friends.

5. IT PROBABLY WON'T BE PRETTY. The defense these two teams like to play mean that this probably won't be an up-and-down affair. In past years, U of L has faced teams like this and blitzed them with pressure. But the fact is, this U of L team doesn't have the quickness of those others, with Peyton Siva-Russ Smith or Smith-Chris Jones backcourts. So it's another nail-biter — if U of L can keep NIU's three-point shooting in check. The good news for Louisville is that it has executed better in late-game situations in the past couple of weeks (with the notable exception of a late cold stretch against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament).

“Winning in those situations is about playing defense,” Blackshear said. “We had to get a big stop at the end of the game to even get Q (Quentin Snider) a chance to make those big free throws, and he had to get a big rebound. You have to make big defensive plays to get to those possessions that everybody talks about. Everybody wants to talk about the game-winning shot, but the big play in that game was on defense, and Trezl was switched onto a guard and got out on a three and a long rebound came off and Q got there first. That's a big play. So we have to keep playing great defense. That has to be our mindset.”

THE PICK. When both teams play really good defense, I usually give the nod to the team that is better offensively. With its ability to shoot at all five positions, NIU is not a great matchup for the Cardinals -- much like Notre Dame. It'll be a home-game type situation for the Panthers. They have four seniors who have been playing for this moment. They've been a great team all season and are in the Top 10 right now, but still haven't gotten much recognition. They need a trip to the Sweet 16 to get that recognition. If Louisville wins this game -- and certainly, it can -- it'll be as impressive as any win it has managed all season. But I think NIU shoots it too well and is too experienced. My pick: Northern Iowa 64, Louisville 59.

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