CRAWFORD | For Louisville, 'easy road' ends with blowouts in Min - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | For Louisville, 'easy road' ends with blowouts in Minardi Classic; next stop -- Lexington

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Rick Pitino, Christine MInardi (daughter of Billy and Stephanie Minaradi) and Trey Lewis, MVP of the 2015 Minardi Classic. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Rick Pitino, Christine MInardi (daughter of Billy and Stephanie Minaradi) and Trey Lewis, MVP of the 2015 Minardi Classic. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Yes, Virginia (and Duke, and North Carolina), there is a Santa Claus. He drew up the University of Louisville’s non-conference basketball schedule.

It has been fun, dominating the dojo, winning 11 non-conference games by an average of 34 points. Please, watch your step and gather your belongings as you disembark from the ride. Don’t plan on leaving early to beat the traffic from here on.

The Cardinals' 98-58 domination of Utah Valley in their second game of the Billy Minardi Classic hardly qualified as a Festivus feat of strength on Wednesday night, though a good time was had by all, especially Trey Lewis, who had 21 points and 7 rebounds to win event MVP honors.

But it took Louisville coach Rick Pitino exactly one sentence to turn his attention to the next task — the sharp upturn in schedule difficulty, beginning with Saturday’s noon game at Kentucky.

“We’ve had an easy road, there’s no question about it,” Pitino said. “But now we’re going to have a very tough road. These guys, I think, will be up for the challenge.”

When Pitino was thinking about this schedule, without a doubt, he was thinking about all the players he was losing.

Over the course of the past dozen games, it’s been evident that there may be something more in the players he’s added. Damion Lee and Trey Lewis were better leaders than anyone envisioned. Donovan Mitchell, Ray Spalding and Deng Adel are really good freshmen. Chinanu Onuaku and Quentin Snider are improved.

When I pointed out that Louisville entered last night’s game ranked seventh in the nation in field goal percentage a (Kentucky) fan pointed out via Twitter that it was largely gained against “Little Sisters of the Poor.”

Who can argue? But consider this: If you added up the pregame warmups from all the games Louisville played last season, when nobody was guarding them, they likely didn’t shoot as high a percentage as this team has managed through its first 12 games.

Utah Valley coach Mark Pope -- a former player for Pitino at Kentucky -- agreed.

"They shot 70 percent from the field in the first half. That's a really good team," he said. "For most teams, just to walk in the gym and shoot 70 percent from the floor with no defense is sometimes challenging. They really shoot it well and are really long, really long. They are a good team. I would have to think they are a top-five, top-seven team in the country with coach (Pitino) running things the way he does."

As for the schedule and whether it could be a hindrance, Pitino said that remained to be seen.

“You’re damned if you do sometimes or damned if you don’t,” Pitino said on the schedule. “We studied Eastern Michigan, you know, I just saw Grand Canyon beat San Diego State in San Diego, they just beat Houston, who is 8-2, so some of those teams aren’t as bad as you think they are. But we substitute and we don’t lose too much. I really don’t think the schedule is a factor good or bad, I really don’t. You saw what we did at Michigan State. . . . If we were right now playing some of the schedules — like Michigan State played — and we were 6-4, 7-3, we may have lost our confidence a little bit. Our confidence is pretty high.”

It will get a test on Saturday. Asking the Louisville players about the rivalry is like asking the Puerto Rican mascot Bompy for directions to the Galt House. It’s a foreign concept.

“Everybody asks about that, but that’s all for you guys,” Lee said when I asked him. “For us, it’s a chance to play a great team, and to try to show a little bit of what we’re about.”

Trey Lewis said he started hearing about the rivalry as soon as he got onto campus.

“It’s a big game because it’s a big test and it’s on the road,” Lewis said. “We’ve got a lot of those coming up. We just want to absorb everything over the next couple of days and go in there ready to try and play great defense and see if we can win.”

Pitino’s primary concern after 12 games is defense. In Wednesday’s game, the Cards made 18 of their first 24 shots — 7 of 10 from three-point range — and Utah Valley couldn’t recover. If you leave this group open, they are capable of winning with offense. But against elite teams, that’s never enough.

“I’m really happy, not only with our record, but our passing has been brilliant,” Pitino said. “Our offense and the way we look for each other has been fun to watch. Now we just have to pick up our defense.”

The problem for the Cardinals is that they have not been good at containing ball-handlers. If they could do that, they’d be a very dangerous team. But once an offensive player blows by a Louisville defender — and Pitino has team managers chart every time that happens — a post player has to rotate over, and not only is put in a much greater position to foul, but faces a tougher challenge blocking shots. It’s much easier, once a dribbler has been slowed down on his way in, to slide over as a secondary defender and swat the shot. Anthony Davis was one of the best I’ve ever seen at that.

So against Kentucky, Pitino said he’ll need to count on depth, and probably sending Kentucky to the line a lot. Though the Cards will spend the next two days drilling on defense to try to improve it.

Asked if the team has accomplished to this point what he’d hoped, Pitino said: “Offensively we have. We’ve passed the ball well. We shot the ball well. Just, defensively, we’re not where we need to be. I wouldn’t expect it with all these new players and four starters gone. But we’ll get there. And we’re going to have to get there right away.”

And what happened next? Well, in Lou’ville they say,
The Cards schedule strength grew three sizes that day.

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