In a lot of ways, Louisville's season-opener was what we expect a season-opener to look like. It was often sloppy, there were defensive lapses from both teams, and about 9,000 fouls were called (most of them warranted). Still, I found myself waking up Saturday morning feeling far more confident about the 2014-15 season than I had expected to after night one.
As all teams are in mid-November, Louisville is still very much a work in progress. The Cards need a couple of younger players to develop into something they are not right now in order to have a shot at making their third Final Four in four seasons, and that's not a situation U of L has been in the last handful of years. Still, my biggest takeaway from Friday night was how much the Cards did look like the last four Rick Pitino squads. They played extraordinarily hard and showcased the same type of camaraderie that made the Preston Knowles/Peyton Siva/Gorgui Dieng/Russ Smith/Luke Hancock teams so successful.
A lot of what Pitino stresses early in a season gets mocked for being over-the-top and hyperbolic, but his point about the veterans on this team needing to pass down the culture of Louisville basketball to the newcomers was both legitimate and crucial. U of L hasn't won more games than any other program in the country over the last three seasons because they've had the best players, they've won in large part because everybody has been on the same page. While it's obviously too early to say with any degree of certainty, it appeared on Friday night as if that's going to be the case again this season.
For me, the most remarkable thing about Trez's now oft-discussed outside shot isn't how frequently it goes in, but how natural it looks. Even when he misses, it doesn't look like a post player who's goofing around at the end of a blowout, it looks like a shot he deserved to take and will probably make the next time. If you didn't know any better you'd think that Harrell arrived at Louisville with a reliable jump shot, when the reality is that two years ago it wasn't a given that he'd draw iron on a free-throw attempt.
Part of what makes Montrezl Harrell so great is his unrivaled work ethic. It's easy to see when you watch him play in a game, but watching the progression of his shot over the last three years really makes it apparent how hard he grinds when nobody's looking.
It's a long season, of course, but no player in the country looked better than Trez on opening night.
Chris Jones showcased the perfect mix of poise and killer instinct that made him so effective at the end of last season, but he also looked both quicker and more confident. Sometimes it's hard to play your absolute hardest when you aren't 100 percent certain that you're doing the right thing, and I think that's why you see so many players look lightyears ahead of where they were during their second season under Pitino.
You can say the same thing about Terry Rozier, who legitimized all the summer praise he received from scouts and executives who watched him at the adidas Nations. The kid is going to be exactly the player we all have been hoping he'd be this season.
Montrezl Harrell was GREAT v. UM: 30 points, 9 rebounds, 9-12 FG, 9-10 FT. Terry Rozier and Chris Jones just as good...The Blur Brothers!— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) November 15, 2014
Seriously though, it appears that Levitch's perfect mark is going to be put to the test this season as he seems to be a legitimate fixture in Pitino's guard rotation. I'm good with it.
New Wayne looked a lot like Old Wayne on night one of the season. He was hit with a couple of really bad foul calls, he committed a pair of bad fouls on his own, and ultimately did not make much of an impact on the first game of his senior season. He also finished as the only player on the team who saw the court and had a negative +/- rating.
More disappointing than his foul trouble was the fact that Wayne missed is his first shot, and then immediately lost all the aggressiveness that he showcased in the Red-White scrimmages and the two exhibition games. That can't happen if he wants to have a big senior year. Playing simply not to mess up isn't going to cut it anymore. If there were a Russ Smith pill available for people who need to lose their inhibitions and gain a shorter memory, we would need Wayne to start taking like 1/8 of one before every game. He doesn't need to be Russ, but if he's serious about wanting to be successful against quality teams, he has to be more willing to make mistakes.
My initial thought when they announced Chinanu Onuaku as a starter was that Pitino made the move because he knows games are typically called tighter at the beginning and he was worried about Mangok getting into foul trouble. After watching the game, however, I'm not sure Onuaku hadn't just outplayed Mathiang in practice.
Yes, he committed some egregious fouls, and yes he has to finish better around the rim, but it was hard not to be encouraged by what we saw from the freshman big man Friday night. He knows how to rebound, he's going to be a legitimate rim defender, and he has the type of frame that won't allow him to be bullied by burly centers the way Mangok might be. I feel much better about the five position than I thought I would this early on.
Rough night for Anton Gill, but I think it's also important to remember that he spent most of the night playing an unnatural position for him. Still, that doesn't explain where his shooting stroke went, which looked nowhere near as smooth as it did a year ago. Anton needs to put in some heavy work at the gym and get that muscle memory down, because we're going to need his outside shot this year, regardless of what position he's playing.
Shaqquan Aaron becoming declared eligible as soon as possible is important. Maybe not for success in November or December, but for the long term. Eventually I think he'll have a significant role to play on this team.
[listens to Migos once] pic.twitter.com/8T4L31IhWL— Peter Berkes (@peterberkes) November 15, 2014
I was surprised at how confident Quentin Snider looked, especially considering that he had seemed a little nervous during his first handful of Yum Center appearances. I think for some younger guys it's actually more stressful playing at home early on in their careers. Q was ready to answer the bell in his first college game, and hit the two biggest momentum shots for U of L in both halves. Him being a reliable option at point guard from the get-go would be an enormous boon for this team in its biggest non-conference games.
He also looks like a mixture of the guy from Slumdog Millionaire/Million Dollar Arm and Bruno Mars ("Qno Mars" was actually muttered during last night's game watch). Mrs. CC is a fan.
Being the showcase game on opening night was pretty awesome, and I think Louisville earned a win that is going to wind up looking much better in late February than it does right now. All things considered, it was hard to take much negative away from what happened Friday night.
Now we have the glory of the Global Sports Showcase at the Yum Center, Notre Dame and UK weeks coming up in football, the soccer team chasing the ACC and national championships, bowl game preparation, three big-time December non-conference hoops games, and the holidays all on the horizon. Times are good.