CRAWFORD | After three routs in four ACC games, how good is this Louisville team?
The University of Louisville basketball team has three straight ACC wins by 20 points (around a loss at Florida State) since losing starting point guard Quentin Snider. WDRB's Eric Crawford asks, how good can this team be?
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — So, now might not be exactly the right time to ask this, but after three straight wins of 20-plus points against ACC competition, I’m going ask anyway — how good is this University of Louisville basketball team?
Missing two point guards, and without a pair of scholarships because of self-imposed sanctions, the Cardinals rolled to a 30-point lead before coasting home for an 85-60 win over N.C. State on Sunday, just days after the Wolfpack had won at Duke.
One game prior, the Cardinals scored the most lopsided road win in ACC history, beating Pittsburgh 106-51.
Before a loss at Florida State last weekend, they bounced Clemson by 30 in the KFC Yum! Center, in their first game without starting point guard Quentin Snider.
In their past four games, Louisville has averaged 87.8 points without its point guard and team captain, and shot 50.7 percent from the field. Since the first of the year, the Cardinals have averaged 81.1 points per game and lost just twice — at Notre Dame and at Florida State.
After their blowout win Sunday, they rose to No. 4 in the Rating Percentage Index, with a strength of schedule of No. 1 nationally. They also are at No. 4 in the Ken Pomeroy rantings, one spot behind Kentucky, where they rank No. 2 in the nation in defensive efficiency against a schedule that ranks No. 4 in the nation in offensive efficiency. They are No. 4 in the Sagarin ratings with a schedule rated No. 10 nationally, and in the Associated Press poll released Monday afternoon are No. 6.
In the past four games, forced to rely more on motion and passing in the absence of their best ballhandlers, the Cardinals have shot 43.2 percent from three-point range, while making 8.8 threes per game. They’ve averaged 1.24 points per possession and averaged just 10 turnovers per game.
Let’s be clear — they’ve done a lot of that against the bottom of the ACC. Pittsburgh and Clemson are struggling, N.C. State is one of the league’s worst defensive teams. Against Florida State, the Cardinals made just 2 of 13 threes and shot just 38.5 percent.
So the offensive performance in recent games needs to be taken with a grain of thought.
But if you look at the make-up of this team — the length, the shot-blocking, the offensive rebounding, the improving defense, the youth and its upside — it’s hard not to think it has a chance to make a run at the end of the season, if it can get healthy.
“One thing I'm really, really proud of is these guys bring it every night,” Rick Pitino said. “Now we lost, obviously to Florida State, but we brought it big time. This group, like last year's group, just bring it all the time — we can lose, but we bring it — and I'm really, really happy with that. We haven't had a game where it's one of those nights didn't go well, like Pitt the other night when we played them. Our guys have been bringing it and somebody's been stepping up with major injuries, and when we get healthy, it'll really help us down the road.”
Donovan Mitchell has emerged as one of the top players in the ACC, and the nation. Ken Pomeroy rates him statistically as No. 1 in the conference and No. 9 in the nation. Over the past four games, he has averaged 20.3 points per game. In the past two games, he’s 12 of 20 from three-point range.
Pitino attributes some of his success to moving into more of a point-guard role. As a shooting guard, he’s a tad under-sized, and finds himself in the role of a spot-up shooter. As a point guard, he’s bigger and stronger than opponents, and has to focus on driving to the rim and passing the ball, as well as making shots from the perimeter.
“The point guard is his natural position,” Pitino said. “He's very good off pick and rolls, he sees the floor very well. The two-guard spot is not really his thing, but we run — we always tried with [Peyton] Siva and Russ [Smith] and Chris Jones and [Terry] Rozier — we try to play with two points. But he has the ball in his hands more right now then he has otherwise. . . . You always look for a silver lining in any injury, and he's got a chance to work at that, which I think will pay a huge dividend down the road.”
Mitchell said he has probably paid more attention to scouting and focused more in general in Snider’s absence. He was asked on Sunday what the ceiling could be for this group?
“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “But now isn’t the time to start thinking about that. We just have to focus on the next game. I think we have one more guy who is going to make a big jump. That guy right there.
Mitchell pointed at Deng Adel. “We know what he can do. He’s going to break out soon, and we’re going to be that much better.”
The other player who has keyed Louisville’s recent run is Mangok Mathiang. Pitino says it’s just a matter of getting healthy. Whatever it is, he’s showing a gear he hasn’t shown the past two seasons. Over the past five games, he’s averaging 11 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, while shooting 61.8 percent (21 of 34) from the field.
“I think our fans will tell you — and you all see it — the difference between Mangok in the last two weeks and the last two months,” Pitino said. “He's a different man. You break your foot twice, it just takes time.”
This is a team that is playing well, but by no means playing great. There’s plenty of room for improvement. It rarely gets great games from the rotating power forwards Ray Spalding and Jaylen Johnson at the same time. Anas Mahmoud has had breakout games, only to fade back into the background next time out.
David Levitch is a guard Pitino is going to have to use more, even when Snider returns. He does everything well, shoots a good percentage from the field, and makes the offense go, just from moving the ball and understanding where it needs to go.
It remains a team with shortcomings. It doesn’t finish well in transition. At times, with a lead, it gets rushed on the offensive end. Of the past four teams, even with the point guard trouble Louisville has had, only Florida State has taken advantage of it and ramped up the defensive pressure.
Still, against N.C. State, Louisville put it all together in the second half. The Cards played well in the first half, and used a 21-3 spurt to take a 15-point lead. But they also allowed N.C. State to shoot 65 percent over the half’s final 12 minutes, letting the Wolfpack stay within striking distance.
In the second half, they held N.C. State to 8 for 28 shooting from the field and shot 51.6 percent themselves, and their lead swelled to 30.
The schedule gets tougher pretty quickly. After facing Boston College this weekend, their next three road games are at Virginia, Syracuse and North Carolina.
But this is a team that, despite injuries, has kept trending upward. If that continues, it figures to be in a dangerous position one month from now.
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