CRAWFORD | Louisville earns at least one believer in 71-67 loss - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville earns at least one believer in 71-67 loss to Michigan State: Izzo

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Trey Lewis drives against Michigan State. (AP photo) Trey Lewis drives against Michigan State. (AP photo)

EAST LANSING, Mich. (WDRB) — I don’t know if the University of Louisville basketball team changed many minds after leading No. 3 Michigan State for all but six minutes of Wednesday’s 71-67 loss to the Spartans in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

I do know it won over one guy. About a half-dozen times in his postgame news conference, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo took questions about his own team’s play only to steer discussion back to the No. 24-ranked Cardinals Cardinals.

“I’m sitting here happy with the win,” he said, “but more impressed with Louisville than Michigan State at this point. Just because I think they played so doggone hard. . . . This was a big game to win.”

Later, Izzo said, “We beat a good team. That’s a Top 10,15 team I promise you. And they’re going to get better.”

We don’t know what U of L coach Rick Pitino thought about the game. He didn’t talk. He sent players out. He sent assistant coach Ralph Willard out. Willard, by the way, is always insightful. Damion Lee and Trey Lewis were as good after the game as they were during the game — and that was very good.

Lee scored 23 points, and Lewis 21.

But this case of the disappearing head coach needs to stop. I know fans don't care what coaches do with the media. But I'm betting more than a few were interested in hearing from him after this game. It’s interesting that the one time he has talked in the last three games was in New York, which was the one place he was most likely to get questions about the allegations facing his program, and where he did in fact get them. More than likely, he said something to tick off the legal folks and is back in time out.

But it’s part of the job. He’s better than most in the game at standing in front of the bright lights and smiling and selling his program. Right now, it’s going to get trashed most times it appears on ESPN, if the fan feedback from Wednesday’s ESPN broadcast is any indication. If he wants a counter-voice to that, it needs to be his, and Wednesday night was a prime opportunity, with a bunch of guys nobody knew coming into one of the toughest venues in college basketball and playing toe-to-toe with one of the favorites to win the national championship.

Izzo, frankly, has gone above and beyond in praising Pitino the past couple of days, including an interview with Bob Valvano on Louisville radio. Pitino didn’t repay any of that Wednesday night. That’s not how he has handled things his whole career.

While Willard made the media rounds, Pitino didn’t head out. He stayed in the locker room, probably talked to his team for 20-25 minutes after the game. Willard said it wasn’t a talk aimed at how close they had come.

“We feel we had a great opportunity to win this game, and it slipped away,” was how Willard described the tenor of that message.

Pitino knew his team would have an edge in preparation time, and it caught Michigan State coming off three victories in the Wooden event in California with only one day of practice for Louisville. The Cardinals had a good plan, and in the game’s first 10 minutes, they executed it well.

But watching an Izzo-Pitino game is like watching a chess match. Izzo began to make in-game adjustments. Pitino made his own. At halftime, with Denzel Valentine just 4 of 10 from the field and getting doubled in Louisville’s zone every time he approached a screener, Izzo made a change. He began to move Valentine around. He put him at point. He set up some side ball screens.

The Spartans used the Cardinals’ action on Valentine to get other players into the middle of the zone, and when the zone started reacting to that, Valentine took advantage. Bryn Forbes, Lee’s old teammate from Cleveland State, made 5 of 9 threes and finished with 20 points, and sparked the key stretch — four straight Michigan State made baskets, four of them threes, to give the Spartans a 7-point lead with 1:54 left.

Willard said that the Cardinals failed to communicate in that key stretch. As good as Lee and Lewis were, they haven’t quite mastered the zone, and got caught inside on some screens a couple of times. Others left three-point shooters when they shouldn’t have. A few little mistakes. That’s all it takes in a game like this.

Valentine scored 11 of Michigan State’s final 13 points, and made all six of his free throws late, because Michigan State did a good job getting him the ball.

“That was a typical Louisville-Michigan State game. White-knuckler right down to the end,” Izzo said. “I feel fortunate to win. I almost feel like we stole it, and you got to do that in order to have a great season. You got to win some games — I wouldn’t say we didn’t deserve to, because we fought back, but I thought they played awfully well for along period of time in that game.”

Louisville outscored Michigan State 40-24 in the paint, and that was without a big night from any of its post players.

“They did a lot of good things,” Izzo said. “They’re a very, very well-coached team. They trapped us. We started adjusting to it as the game went on.”

Mainly, Izzo was impressed with Louisville’s hustle.

“It doesn’t take practice to learn how to dive on loose balls and knock balls loose like Louisville did,” Izzo said. “I can’t tell you how much credit I give them. I told Rick after the game, they did things we usually do.”

Maybe they made a few more believers around the nation. They also learned some things themselves.

Lee was outstanding offensively. Valentine couldn’t guard him, and Izzo said Lee’s success on offense forced Valentine into a couple of uncharacteristic bad shots before he steadied himself. Valentine, in the end, finished with 25 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. And he controlled the game late.

“We played well enough to win this game,” Lewis said. “. . . It’s heartbreaking. This hurts, but as a young team we’re going to go through experiences like this. It’s good to go through this early.”

Louisville was outrebounded 40-30 after leading 13-9 early. Michigan State made nine threes to Louisville’s four.

But the big question about this team was could it respond to this kind of situation. It’s a completely new cast. Would it still have the kind of toughness Louisville has shown on the road the past four seasons.

It answered that question in the affirmative. Rankings, at this time of year, mean nothing. But proving you can go into a place like Michigan State and have it be anyone's game heading into the final minutes does mean something.

“We came in, we recognized what we were up against, a very high-quality basketball team in a very hostile environment, the first time these guys have been together in this type of environment,” Willard said. “We thought they responded very, very well from that aspect.”

So did Izzo.

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