BOZICH | For first-place Louisville, ACC title is no consolation prize
Finishing with the best record in the Atlantic Coast Conference became the new goal for the Louisville basketball team -- and history shows it would be more than a consolation prize.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This is an extreme Cliff’s Notes version of players who won Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championships, but it still makes the point:
Ralph Sampson, Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, Jerry Stackhouse, Tyler Hansbrough and assorted Hall of Famers to be named later.
Coaches who have won the ACC title and been welcomed to the Hall?
Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Gary Williams, Frank McGuire, Everett Case and Roy Williams.
Chump teams and coaches need not apply for ACC glory. It’s not winning the NCAA championship. But delivering the best regular-season record in the ACC would be more than an Old School consolation prize.
“It was the first thing that came to our minds,” said University of Louisville freshman Donovan Mitchell.
The Cardinals continued their pursuit of first place in the ACC Saturday by dominating Boston College, 79-47, at the KFC Yum! Center.
The victory, the school’s largest in two seasons of ACC play, pushed Louisville’s conference record to 8-2 (19-4 overall). It was also was the opening act in a day that ended with the Cards moving into a first-place tie with North Carolina, which lost at Notre Dame Saturday night. That's back-to-back losses for the Tar Heels, who lost to Louisville on Monday. Virginia, 8-3, looms behind the Cards and UNC.
“The least we can do for us as a team and Louisville fans is play these nine games as hard as we can,” said U of L center Anas Mahmoud.
“Just win every single game and hope that Carolina loses a game. So we can win the regular season, which is our goal for the last nine games.”
Can the Cards win the ACC regular-season title? Are they eligible?
Excellent question for the league office. They’re not on NCAA probation. They’re on a self-imposed tournament ban because they’ve found proof that rules have been violated.
Who could blame the U of L players for being bored, disinterested or feeling sorry for themselves Saturday?
No tournament play. No fitting farewell for Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, the program’s fifth-year seniors, although the crowd (21,803) cheered wildly for them, especially Lee, who tossed a ceremonial jump ball before the game.
Getting the adrenaline to pump for Boston College added to the challenge. The Eagles have not won an ACC game since March 7, 2015. BC’s rating in Ken Pomeroy’s formula was 249, the worst of any Atlantic Coast Conference team since 2012.
This is how it went down for the players Friday. Mahmoud said they were in the locker room at the Yum! Center campus practice facility when David Padgett, the team’s director of operations, told the players not to change into workout clothes for individual instructions.
Team meeting in 15 minutes.
“We were in the locker room trying to find out, what’s the big deal that coach would cancel individuals,” Mahmoud said.
“That never happens. ‘Guys, did anybody do anything wrong? What happened last night? ‘”
The news was not news that any player expected to hear. No NCAA Tournament. No ACC Tournament. A post-season ban. An admission that NCAA rules had been violated. Nine more regular-season games. The end.
“I was shocked,” Mahmoud said. “It never really came into our minds that anything would happen to us this season.
“We were all thinking that in the worst case we would be banned next season. We never really thought at all about being banned this season.”
Energy was not a problem for the Cardinals – at least not in the first 20 minutes as the Cardinals surged to leads of 19-2, 25-6 and 32-14. They did not show anger. They showed a focus.
The push to bury BC sagged in the second half. Understandable. BC cut the lead to 10 before Louisville created more separation, stirring renewed energy from the fans.
In the end, 10 players scored. The Cards shot nearly 51 percent. Deng Adel delivered 13 points after starting in place of Lee, who has a bruised left knee. Chinanu Onuaku flirted with another double-double, finishing with 13 rebounds and eight points. Trey Lewis led the Cards with 16. No pouting. Perform.
Next week is a perfect week for this team to maintain its edge – at Duke Monday night, followed by at Notre Dame Saturday night. No time to mope.
Home games against Syracuse and Duke with their Hall of Fame coaches follow. Trips to Pittsburgh and Miami, difficult places to win. Senior Night against Georgia Tech on March 1.
The finale? A payback trip to Virginia on March 5. That game might decided the best record in the ACC.
Pomeroy’s numbers project that the Cardinals will win five of the last eight and finish 13-5 in league play, one game behind North Carolina.
The same North Carolina that Louisville dealt its only ACC defeat Monday night. That 71-65 victory was the Cardinals’ finest performance this season, a victory that convinced the players that anything was possible.
“After we beat Carolina we had a really big ceiling for ourselves,” Mahmoud said. “We saw how much we could do as a team and how far we could go. Our ceiling got higher and higher after Carolina.”
Until Friday afternoon.
Now the ceiling has changed to an ACC regular-season championship.
“We’re focused on showing we can handle adversity no matter how small or how big it might be,” Mitchell said.
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