CRAWFORD | Louisville bigs make big offensive strides in season- - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville bigs make big offensive strides in season-opening win

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© photo by Jeff Reinking. © photo by Jeff Reinking.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — You have to think about this, and it won't be easy, because this is a fact that most University of Louisville fans have probably tried to forget.

A season ago, the Cardinals basically couldn’t throw the ball inside. On offense, they were a donut. If Mangok Mathiang caught it and held it for a three-count, chances are it was a turnover. Chinanu Onuaku just developed a problem catching the ball cleanly.

The Cardinals, incredibly, went to the Elite Eight anyway, and were a free throw away from the Final Four. Without being able to throw the ball into the post.

It’s still a bit early to say how much that will change this season. But Friday night’s 86-45 season-opening win over Samford showed that some things have changed.

Onuaku went 5-of-5 from the field, made his only free throw and dished out a pair of assists without a turnover. Mathiang came off the bench to make 3 of 4 shots, dish out an assist and grabbed seven rebounds.

Mathiang even played the safety valve against the press and drove the ball up against pressure a time or two. If Pitino had done that a season ago, he’d have been asked to undergo a psych consult after the game.

What has changed?

“Just confidence, I think,” Mathiang said, after finishing with six points. “Having confidence in myself and knowing that my teammates and my coaches have huge confidence in me makes it that much easier for me to just go out there and play my game.”

Mathiang spent the summer playing for Australia in the World University Games, where he was the leading rebounder and No. 8 scorer, with 13.5 points and 10.3 rebounds, and he shot 56.1 percent. In the title game, he had his best scoring game with 23 points.

The confidence he got from that was important. And Onuaku has a similar story. He wasn’t asked to score as much playing for Team USA in the Men’s U19 World Championships. He averaged 4.6 points and shot 65 percent from the field. In the gold medal game he had six points and eight key rebounds in an overtime win.

Like Mathiang, Onuaku said he came back with more confidence. And he played Friday night with more emotion, screaming to his teammates after a breakaway slam in the second half.

“It’s not just that I’ve got more confidence, I feel like the team has more confidence in me and Coach P has more confidence,” Onuaku said. “I’ve worked hard every day and tried to earn it. . . . Over the summer, I worked out with my brother (former Syracuse center Arinze Onuaku, who finished last season for the Minnesota Timberwolves) and he helped me develop my game, refine my post moves and work on a little hook shot.”

And Pitino said it isn’t just Onuaku’s offense that he’s happy with — it’s his attitude.

“I told the guys after the game, I said if I had to pick something I was really pleased with it was his attitude,” Pitino said. “I was going to put him in with three fouls and he says, ‘Don’t worry about playing me, let the other guys play.’ That was not Nanu last year. He has really matured and has really played well. . . . I think the experience of playing on the under-19 national team really helped him. He understands the game very well. . . . He’s going to get better and better and better. And he’s a very good passer, too, for a big man.”

It doesn’t mean that this will be a team that plays through the post, though it may have that option more than it did a year ago. Mathiang said that Pitino has told his big men he wants them ready to handle the ball more, because he has some good passers in the post.

But it does mean that the Cards are no longer hampered by trying to play offense without the option of going directly inside. Which frees things up for everyone.

Coupled with the team’s ability to block shots (nine in Friday night’s win), that could usher mean a return to the kind of interior production that helps free-throw percentages rise, and offensive output improve.

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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