CRAWFORD | Louisville looks to begin final ascent against Syracu - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville looks to begin final ascent against Syracuse

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WDRB photo by Eric Crawford WDRB photo by Eric Crawford
Click image to enlarge. Game facts via Louisville Sports Information. Click image to enlarge. Game facts via Louisville Sports Information.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The big ‘ship has sailed. The University of Louisville, when it lost at North Carolina Wednesday night, waved bon voyage to its Atlantic Coast Conference championship hopes.

Now, the Cardinals have to keep their vessel from taking on water with three tough games against potential NCAA Tournament teams to end the season, beginning with Sunday's 2 p.m. CBS-televised home game against Syracuse at the KFC Yum! Center.

They will finish the regular season with a trip to Wake Forest on Wednesday and their finale against Notre Dame in the KFC  Yum! Center next Saturday. Win those three, and the Cardinals likely will be a Top 4 seed in the ACC Tournament and could be looking at a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Start losing, and the seeds start to scatter.

“We have three crucial games left, and we not only have to win, we have to play well,” Pitino said on Friday. “. . . When you’re playing a nationally televised game, and you’ve only got two home games left, our basketball team knows that by not beating North Carolina we blew a No. 1 seed and a chance to win a conference championship. Now, that being said, if you won every game and you won the (ACC) tournament, you’re still in the hunt for that (No. 1 seed). But our players know, by not being more physical on the glass, what that cost us.”

After a longer look at Wednesday’s loss to the Tar Heels, Pitino came away particularly disappointed in the rebounding numbers. The Cards allowed North Carolina to rebound nearly 40 percent of its missed shots, while grabbing only eight offensive rebounds of their own. The UNC second-chance points didn’t kill the Cards, but the overall deficit on the boards (46-33) and the lack of second-chance opportunities absolutely did. U of L managed just eight second-chance points, their fourth-lowest total of the season.

Three of Louisville’s most anemic offensive rebounding games of the season have come in their last six games, including losses to Virginia and North Carolina. Pitino said the problem wasn’t primarily the big men, but guards who didn’t help.

“Our guards did not come down and rebound, and that’s what cost us that game,” Pitino said. “And our passing was very weak.”

Passing will be at a premium on Sunday. Ball and player movement is the key to beating Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. The Cardinals know it well, and know what they have to do to beat it. Doing it is another thing.

This is a team that just hasn’t looked sharp since losing at Virginia on Feb. 6 — except for its offense against Virginia Tech a week ago, which was exemplary.

Otherwise, the Cardinals labored to beat Miami, and nearly coughed up a win at Syracuse. They edged Virginia Tech but gave up 90 points, then just couldn’t find a winning gear at North Carolina.

Now, let’s be clear. The competition took a step up. This team wasn’t going to look as good when it wasn’t playing N.C. State or Pittsburgh or Boston College.

But even so, it hasn’t looked in sync. It averaged 15.5 turnovers in its past two road games, and shot 46.5 percent (20 of 46) from the line in those games. Now is the time, as Pitino said, for the team to start to play better.

That’ll mean getting consistent contributions from various players. Anas Mahmoud had one of his best ACC game at Syracuse, and the Cards need him to play that way pretty much from here on. They also need to get more contributions from Ray Spalding. Beginning with Louisville’s win over Purdue, Spalding saw 23 minutes or more in 10 of the Cards’ next 14 games. Since then, he hasn’t logged 20 minutes once, though he did play 17 — with two points and four rebounds — at North Carolina.

Jaylen Johnson has been the more consistent option at the No. 4 spot, but the Cards are better when both players are contributing. The same goes for Mahmoud, who provides a powerful contrast to the game of Mangok Mathiang.

Deng Adel has been consistent, but Pitino needs to get V.J. King more involved, because he’s a potent offensive threat.

Tony Hicks, who returned from a broken finger at North Carolina, isn’t expected to play much against Syracuse, Pitino said, but could play more at Wake Forest.

Pitino’s teams are at their best when players roll in off the bench and hurt opponents with their strengths. Right now, it seems, players at times come in and struggle with their weaknesses.

If Louisville is to be the team it can be, over the next three games, things will begin to all work together.

Let’s be clear. Louisville is 22-6 right now against what the Ratings Percentage Index ranks as the No. 1 schedule in the nation. The Cardinals are No. 5 in the RPI and No. 7 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. They rank No. 7 in the Sagarin ratings.

They’ve achieved on the high end of expectations to this point. But as Pitino tells all his teams, grades are weighted toward what happens at the end of the season.

And good or bad — teams are only remembered for how they perform on their final exam.

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