To me, this loss stings worse than any other since the infamous senior day debacle against South Florida back in 2012.
The Kentucky loss in the Final Four was awful, but I think everyone knew going in that the Wildcats were the vastly superior team. Louisville had exceeded everyone's expectations by making it that far, and the only painful thing about the way the season ended was who dealt them their final loss As for a season ago, there was never a game the Cards dropped that made you really doubt their status as a national title contender, and there wasn't one of those five games that U of L desperately needed to win.
Louisville really, really, really needed to win Thursday night, and the way they failed to accomplish that was troubling. That's why we're all still stinging almost a full day later.
Let's start positive by noting that the environment inside the KFC Yum Center Thursday night was easily one of the five best in the building's short history. The crowd felt like as much of a contributor as any player during the key stretch where Louisville cut a 16-point deficit to five in somewhere around 11 seconds. I think Cincinnati actually committed three straight turnovers without completing a single pass. It was as rattled as I've ever seen a Bearcat team, and the crowd played a huge role in that. Kudos to everyone involved.
Except for the older couple with floor seats who chose to leave with Cincinnati up 1 and 23 seconds to play. You get zero kudos.
It's almost been a day and I still can't believe we fouled Sean Kilpatrick twice in the final 20 seconds. If you throw in the questionable foul call on SVT with Louisville up three and the shot clock about to expire (maybe the biggest moment in the game), then the Cards sent him to the stripe for six enormous points in the decisive final three minutes.
The most mind-boggling thing about fouling Kilpatrick the first time in the closing seconds was that U of L had multiple opportunities to give the foul to someone else. The Cards did the right thing and trapped Kilpatrick when he received the in-bounds pass, and actually came fairly close to picking up a turnover out of the move. But then they simply did not make nearly enough effort to foul one of the other Bearcats who touched the ball. Stephan Van Treese looked like he was trying to give a foul just before the final pass to Kilpatrick, but he wasn't nearly as demonstrative as he should have been.
You know it was talked about during the timeout. You know it. So for this team not to execute what should have been a relatively simple task with a late-January game hanging in the balance is really, really disappointing.
The game reminded me a lot of the one Peyton Siva played when Louisville lost to Syracuse at home last season. Now Russ put up much better stats against UC than Peyton did in that game, but they were both performances that left everyone talking about how the team's senior captain and star has to be better in a nip-and-tuck situation.
Every season is a new experience, and I don't think it's a falsity to say "he'll learn from this" just because we're deep into Russ' senior season. He's never played this role before, and I don't think there's any question that it's been an adjustment.
That said, there's no excuse for the sustained troubles at the free-throw line. Get in the gym and get that muscle memory back. Those are huge, huge points being left at the charity stripe.
Some people are just born to be Cincinnati players. I could not see Titus Rubles suiting up for any other program in the country.
Just a thought.
Easily the biggest positive to come out of Thursday night was the play of Montrezl Harrell, who got back to playing above the rim and who continued to showcase his newly effective baby hook. The only problem with the hook, and we saw it happening near the end of game last night, is that teams are going to start hanging over his left shoulder the same way they used to with David Padgett. Trez is going to have to either develop a reliable face-up jumper or he's going to have to drastically improve his footwork and the effectiveness of his pump fakes.
Even though he was the most dominant player during U of L's big second half run, I did not like the move to feed Harrell in the post on a possession where the game hung in the balance. I get that he was either supposed to score if he had an opening or take one dribble and quickly kick the ball out, but that's a situation that hasn't ended well for the Cards far too many times to gamble on with that much hanging in the balance.
The last time he touched the ball somewhat tainted his big evening, but still, that was exactly the type of player Trez has to be if Louisville is going to make another deep run here in a month and-a-half.
Louisville is 17-4 & ranked 12th this season. Last year thru 21 games Louisville was 17-4 & ranked 12th. And went on to win NCAA title.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 31, 2014
Is that...is that a smile I see? It's okay to smile. January is over.
I've seen a lot of people dogging Stephan Van Treese today and I don't really get it. He made a tremendous rebound in the game's final minutes, and if Luke Hancock puts the game away by consolidating that play with a wide-open three to put Louisville up 67-63, we're all hailing SVT as a conquering hero right now.
My biggest problem with a certain breed of fans in every sport is their unrealistic desire for seemingly every player to become something more than they're capable of being. It's never enough for a guy to do everything he's capable of doing to try and get his team a victory. If the team loses, it's his fault for not being more naturally gifted.
I'd like it if Stephan Van Treese had the body of Dwight Howard and the 18-foot jumper of Tim Duncan. I wish Wayne Blackshear could implement a Kobe fadeaway and an Iverson crossover into his game. It'd be so great if Chris Jones could cram like David Levitch. These things aren't going to happen, and I don't understand why that's the fault of the players incapable of making the transformations.
Now I'm not trying to say that players should be praised for simply playing hard. That's part of it, but effectively utilizing your skills and making heady decisions based on practice and scouting reports certainly also have a place in the discussion.
My problem is the criticism I've heard of Van Treese today has basically boiled down to people saying he's not good enough. Okay, so what would have made him or us better last night? Louisville was the best team it could be last night when SVT was on the floor, and I'm not sure how so many people could have watched the game and thought otherwise. He didn't the turn the ball over, he didn't commit any silly fouls and he grabbed seven rebounds and kept several more plays alive against one of the biggest, longest and most athletic teams in the country. If there were some sort of "rebound assist" statistic, then SVT's stat line would look about 20 times less pedestrian, and that goes for a bunch of games he's played the past two seasons.
There have been times this season where criticism of Stephan Van Treese has been warranted (just as there have been with every single player on this team), but last night was not one of them.
By the same token, Chris Jones did nothing last night to demand any significant criticism. It's an easy thing to do considering Jones was out for what was easily Louisville's best three game stretch of the season, but he drilled a pair of huge jumpers in the game's closing minutes and took care of the ball the entire time he was on the court.
Jones wasn't tremendous (and no one should have expected him to be in his first game back), but I still think the correlation between the way Louisville played with him out of the lineup and the way Louisville played with him last night is being overblown. U of L can't be its best possible team without Jones. I still believe that.
It really, really blows that our two oldest rivals both beat us at home in what might wind up being the last year we ever spend as members of the same conference. The behavior of the Cincinnati fans leaving the Yum Center (while expected) only made the fact worse.
After a little bit of a slow start, I thought Luke played fairly well on his birthday. I know Pitino referenced his lack of a rebound after the game, but when Louisville appeared incapable of doing anything on offense, Hancock was the only guy making plays. Luke was pretty much the only reason we didn't have single digit points at halftime.
The only concerning thing with Luke right now is how different his shot continues to look from last season. I don't know if it's because of his shoulder, but his elbows seem to fly (especially when he's wide open and has a chance to set himself) way more than they did when he was in the zone down the stretch last season. There was one shot last night in the second half that had more arc and follow through and looked like vintage Luke, and I think it may have been because he had a defender running at him and didn't have time to think about it.
He's much more than the one dimensional player most outsiders characterize him as, but when it comes to Luke's outside shot, I think everyone's just hoping that we see the same thing happen this February and March that we saw last February and March.
I don't think we could have afforded to have it come at the expense of taking Luke out of the game, but count me among the crowd that would have liked to have seen more than five minutes of Wayne. I don't really have anything to add to that.
The best part of the night may have been the white-haired baseline official telling a Cincinnati player that he had the freedom to run the baseline to throw the ball in, and then one of the other officials calling him for traveling after he did precisely that. It was about par for the course from that crew (Kilpatrick deserved a yellow card for his late second half backward head toss flop).
The worst part about this loss is that there's no chance to make up for it anytime soon. Between now and Feb. 21, Louisville will face Central Florida, Houston, Temple, Rutgers and South Florida. The Cards can win those five games by a combined 200 points and all the talk is still going to surround their 0-4 record against top 25 foes.
It's going to be a long three weeks, but that doesn't mean it won't be important. The good thing about the round-robin formate of the AAC is that it makes Louisville winning the conference, despite being 2.5 games back at the current moment, more of a realistic possibility than it would be otherwise. If U of L can take care of business against the bottom half of the conference, then they'll put themselves in a position to take out each of the other three teams that figure to be at the top of the standings come late February.
If nothing else, January 2014 is over. Let's all toast to that this evening.