CRAWFORD | Checking the tape: Five takeaways from Louisville's w - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Checking the tape: Five takeaways from Louisville's win at Georgia Tech

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Damion Lee and Donovan Mitchell celebrate after Louisville's win over Georgia Tech. (AP photo) Damion Lee and Donovan Mitchell celebrate after Louisville's win over Georgia Tech. (AP photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — There’s something about Atlanta. Of course, Rick Pitino and the University of Louisville made some fond memories there in 2013.

But trips back since then have not been without importance. It was in Atlanta last season that we learned Chris Jones had been dismissed from the basketball team. Before the game, Pitino read his players a long list of things that ESPN talking heads had said about them, that without Jones they were finished, an early-exit team at best. Then he delivered a stirring speech, saying, “That’s not what we’re about. . . . That’s not going to happen to us.”

Louisville survived that game, beating Georgia Tech 52-51, and went on to the Elite Eight before coming an eyelash short of an improbable Final Four run.

On Saturday, the Cards returned to Atlanta. And they survived Georgia Tech again, 75-71.

Ken Pomeroy recently made an addition to his statistical analysis. In a blog post, he explained something that’s pretty amazing, if you think about it. He writes, “Beating the 90th-ranked team on the road is about as difficult as beating the 50th-best team on a neutral floor, which is roughly as difficult as beating the 20th-best team on one’s home floor.”

It goes to the value of home court in college basketball, and the difficulty of winning on someone else’s home court. That fact led Pomeroy to assign tiers to wins, in terms of quality of win given where the game was played and where the opponent is ranked.

Louisville’s three losses, for example, are all Tier A losses; that is, losses of the most difficult level, all on the road, against teams ranked in his Top 60.

Its two recent home victories — over Pittsburgh and Florida State — were Tier B wins, largely because they came at home, despite the respectable rankings of the opponents.

Louisville’s two recent road wins, at N.C. State, and Saturday at Georgia Tech, are Tier A. The toughest kind to get. (Side note: Eight of the Cardinals’ final 11 games are classified as Tier A games — all five road games, and three at home.)

So the wins you might take for granted, in reality, might’ve been harder to come by than wins against more highly ranked opponents at home. This was a good win. It wasn’t so much a statement win as the one a year ago, but it was important.

“Of all the teams we've played, their coaching staff takes away and knows what we run offensively and defensively better than any team in the conference,” Pitino told reporters after the game. “You always know it's going to be a dogfight because they know what we run so well. They hurt our press and they do certain things that other teams don't do, so I want to give them a lot of credit. They've had a lot of difficult losses, but our guys are a gutty basketball team in pulling out a victory.”

Some takeaways, after watching video of the game (Note: I was in Lexington for Kentucky’s win over Vanderbilt. Rick Bozich and Tom Lane had been scheduled to be in Atlanta, but shelved those travel plans because of weather.)

1. WINNING WITH OFFENSE. Pitino is no fan of it. But it’s nice to have as an option once in a while. After locking down opponents in their past two wins at home, Louisville couldn’t ever figure out how to stop Georgia Tech consistently.

The Yellowjackets scored 1.092 points per possession on Louisville, second-highest of any Cardinal opponent this season (Kentucky, 1.103).

But Louisville responded with some very high-level offense in the second half. It shot 60 percent (15 of 25) in the half. How’s this for execution: In the game’s final 10:11, the Cardinals missed only three shots, going 8 for 11 to finish things off. They scored 1.344 points per possession. (I know, it’s kind of an abstract number. But it’s really good.) They scored 19 times in 32 possessions — and had only one turnover. It was one of the best offensive halves of the season, and to come on the road made it even better.

2. MAHMOUD PLAYS BIG. The 7-foot sophomore had 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the second half and 16 points for the game, his career high. He also made a couple of big free throws late.

Perhaps even bigger, he didn’t turn the ball over in 16 second-half minutes, and dished out a pair of assists.

“Without question, the key to the game, in the second half, was going to Anas Mahmoud,” Pitino said. “Anas is the best passing big man. His length bothers people, but more important, he's got a great low-post game. He's just a little weak. Per minute played, he's the best stat-stuffer on the team. He did a great job for us — making two crucial free throws.”

Louisville’s final 7 points came from the free-throw line. They were 7-10 from the line in the final 1:35, and Mahmoud was 3-4.

3. ONUAKU TOES THE LINE. Chinanu Onuaku had his usual productive game, though it wasn’t a particularly good night from the field. He was only 4-11 from the field — not what the Cards have come to expect from the ACC’s field goal percentage leader in conference games. But he made up for that in the most unlikely of places — the free-throw line.

Slowly, and perhaps bit under the radar, Onuaku, with his underhanded free-throw style, is starting to pay dividends at the line.

His past three games, he’s gone 11-14 from the line (78.6 percent). In ACC play, he’s at 64.7 percent.

The more confident he gets, the more aggressive he’ll be offensively. Instead of shying away from contact, he has had no hesitation about going in strong and getting to the line over the past couple of weeks.

He also led the Cardinals with four assists on Saturday, nearly a third of the team’s total. 

4. LEE STARTS HOT, FINISHES STRONG. It had been a while since Damion Lee got off to a quick offensive start in a game, but he had eight early points for the Cardinals and finished with a team-high 17, including 3-6 from three-point range.

His biggest three was his last, a pull up three on the break with 3:28 left to break a 65-65 tie. Louisville would not trail again.

His biggest play, though, might’ve been the steal he collected with 35 seconds left and Louisville leading by only two.

It was his only steal of the game, but after a talk with Pitino about the danger of becoming “one dimensional,” Lee had seven steals the next two games and has had eight in his past three. That, and when Lee looks to drive and dish occasionally, makes Louisville a much more dangerous team.

5. PRESSING CONCERN. It’s no secret, Louisville’s press this season isn’t the ferocious, ball-hawking weapon it has been in the past. Its perimeter defenders are not particularly quick, nor are they deflection machines. Louisville’s best deflection players are big min, particularly Ray Spalding.

In the first half at Georgia Tech, the Cards had, according to Rick Pitino, only five deflections. That’s particularly anemic. They boosted that number to 17 in the second half. But it’s going to be a concern against some of the good teams they’ll face in February. They’ve got to find a way to turn people over, even if it’s out of the half-court.

Pitino talked about this recently, saying his players needed to get steals from anticipation, if they couldn’t create them out of quickness. After harping on the deflections at halftime, the Cardinals forced three quick turnovers to erase a 7-point deficit to start the second half.

And the press, even if it’s not yielding turnovers, is not without its benefits.

“If you have good pressure, it will take its effect,” Pitino said. “I always equate it to a boxer going to the body, and you don't really see any dividends until the 11th round. And it's the same thing with the press. Sometimes you don't get anything out of it until late in the game when the shot's off or they throw the ball away.”

But as good as Louisville’s offense was in the second half, they led the game for just under 6 minutes of the half. Steals are stops, and the Cardinals need to find a way to generate more of them.

NOTE: Quotes from Pitino’s postgame remarks to reporters were provided via a transcript from Courier-Journal reporter Jeff Greer. You can read the full transcript, and get links to Jeff’s coverage from Atlanta, by clicking here.

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