On one hand I'm content because I thought this was a game in which the odds were stacked against us and that a win would be nothing more than a steal, on the other hand I'm disappointed because we consistently turned them over, held them to under 60 points, had a lead with 10 minutes to play, and still lost.
The difference in the game was a key 2 1/2 minute stretch in the second half between the 6:40 and 4:10 marks. Louisville was still recovering from consecutive Villanova three-pointers that had turned a tie into a six-point Wildcat advantage. The score was 45-41 with 6:42 remaining and the Cards, in desperate need of a stop, had played tremendous defense to get to a point where 'Nova was throwing the ball in from underneath their own goal with just one second remaining on the shot clock.
The only real consistent issue I've had with Pitino has been the fact that he refuses to zone out-of-bounds plays around the bucket. It's burned us several times this year and yet he still won't adjust.
Jay Wright apparently had noticed this on tape, and when he called timeout with that single tick still on the shot clock, he likely already had a specific play already in mind. 'Nova did the smart thing and ran a series of screens that ultimately took advantage of the smallest player on the floor, Andre McGee, and the result was a lob to Dante Cunningham which he tipped in to deliver a crucial blow.
Still, the Cardinals refused to let their four-game win streak die without a fight. McGee responded with a trey, and Padgett followed with a deuce to cut the lead to one. Wright took another timeout with the hope of getting momentum back on the Wildcats' side yet again. 'Nova responded by getting the ball to its playmaker, Curtis Sumpter, who was fouled on a three-point attempt by Terrence Williams, and naturally knocked down all three freebies.
Again, Louisville answered, as a Juan Palacios' hoop got the Cards back within two.
It seemed like if the Louisville defense could just get one stop, or one turnover, they were going to run away with this thing. It didn't happen as McGee inexplicably decided to leave his man in favor of taking some wild slaps at the ball being held by a 'Nova big man near the top of the key. The man McGee left open was the streaky shooting freshman Scottie Reynolds who promptly drilled an NBA three and killed the will of the scrappy Cardinals.
Louisville never threatened again and its winning streak is now history.
When U of L is in one of its far too spaced out scoring spurts, they have to get stops on the other end. Unlike Syracuse a week earlier, Villanova survived the token Cardinal run by making the big shot each and every time they had to.
The biggest positive of the game is a no-brainer. Earl Clark showed why people have been clamoring for more E5 since the beginning of the season. The freshman scored a career-high 14 points, several of which came during a key first-half stretch in which Louisville got back into the game after being down 15-5 early.
If we're talking about from the beginning of the season to the present, Clark has to be considered the most improved player on the team. He's finally looking more comfortable playing team oriented basketball, and he's letting the game come to him and allowing his athleticism and overall skill to shine without forcing the issue.
If this team does continue its late season run, Earl Clark will deserve a respectable slice of the credit.
Damn, Earl's cool
On the other end of the spectrum, the trio of Palacios, Padgett and Williams, which had been so instrumental in the Cards' recent success, combined for just 19 points and 12 rebounds. T-Will just grabbing a pair of rebounds may have been the most disappointing statistic of the game. The intangibles he had been bringing to the court, especially rebounding, had been so valuable to the team's resurgence, and him not hitting the boards hard was one of, if not the, biggest reason Louisville was outrebounded 42-27.
The effort was there, as it always is, from David Padgett, but the big man made several very un-Padgett like mistakes. He had some key lapses on defense down the stretch, and threw the ball away on a key possession late in the game. The basket he scored to cut 'Nova's lead to one with five minutes left was just his second of the game.
Palacios, who had hit double figures in three of his last four games, played just 23 minutes, in large part because of the play of Clark.
I know Pitino loves the pro style position-for-position style of substituting, but I would have liked to have seen E5 and Tello on the floor at the same time a little more today. We've shown we can win with a small lineup, and I think in the right situation a big lineup could also be very effective. Our zone was tough enough today that I think a lineup consisting of Padgett, JDP, E5, T-Will and Sosa or McGee could have been highly effective. You could have even stuck T-Will at the point and put Jenks or Smith at the two and I think we could have generated some more offensive opportunities in the post.
What if's and should have's aside, this game was encouraging if for no other reason than it showed that we can dictate the style of play against a highly talented offensive team like Villanova. This team is going to win ugly when it wins, and I know that isn't the Louisville style we've all grown accustomed to, but it's what works right now and it's the only prayer we have of making the NCAA Tournament.
This is probably the best defensive team in the Pitino era, and I don't think they're recieving nearly enough credit for it. You can only justify low scores and poor field goal percentages as a product of weak competition for so long. No one is lighting these guys up, and as offensively challenged as this team is, that's the only reason NCAA Tournament talk in the Derby City anything more than a punchline.
Of course this loss makes Wednesday's game at home against Georgetown all the more important. Jeff Green has gone berzerk, Roy Hibbert is finally playing like everyone thought he would all season, and the Hoyas have won five in a row.
I'm a little more reluctant than a lot of people to lump this game into the "must-win" category. Obviously beating South Florida, St. John's and Seton Hall at home are all musts, and I'm officially ready to lump the game at Uconn on Feb. 25 into the must-win category. So that leaves just the Georgetown game and the road games at Pitt and Marquette.
Losing these three games and winning the other four would put U of L at 10-6 in the Big East, a mark that in most years would assuredly lock up a bid to the big dance, but the Cards would be without a signature win in the conference, without even a noteworthy win in the non-conference, and their RPI would still be less than stellar. This leads be to believe that winning one of these three against the league's top dogs is a "must."
Georgetown is presumably the weakest of the three, and they are the only one of the three we get at home, so while I still won't technically classify this as a "must-win," yeah, it's pretty damn close.
Peace, love, Cards.