It was all there for the taking Thursday night; a seven o'clock primetime appearance on ESPN, showcasing the best arena in basketball, arguably the hottest team in college sports, and the defending champions in search of their biggest win of the season. For 25 minutes the Cardinals put on a display worthy of the bad news bears and the under 13 league at your local YMCA. Then came the most raucous 10 minute stretch of basketball in recent memory of the Yum Center as the Birds stormed back to take a 64-61 advantage. History then chose to repeat itself as Louisville ineptly and shockingly scored a mere two points over the final five minutes of the contest, zero field goals, and lost in stunning fashion to a much hated, but respected rival.
The question marks continue to surround this rag tag bunch, the doubters certainly have valid points of concern, and the head scratching that accompanies this unit doesn't seem to be disappearing anytime soon. How and why does UofL look so promising and dominating against inferior opponents, but utterly confused and bullied against legitimate teams? The answer could be as simple as our talent deficiency at the five spot is masked when our 1-4 spots are so much better than the opposition. However, I will try to dig a little deeper and diagnose why this bunch can't seem to win the big one.
First and foremost is inexperience. This team truthfully only possesses two players that were trusted to finish the most important games from a season ago. One of those players is cool hand Luke, a true leader, and probably the headiest, most intelligent player to suit up for Louisville since...Garcia? The other is the kid from New York, who has shocked us all by becoming one of the best players in the country, and is also responsible for Louisville becoming the largest market for the Brush Away the Gray Just for Men product. Every other player on our team is learning on the go how to win, and more importantly what not to do in close games. Louisville is 0-4 in close games against real opponents. Louisville has no identity down the stretch. Rick is working tirelessly to figure it out.
Then there is the curious case of Chris Jones. I tried to not make too much of his absence and its effect on the best four game stretch of the season, but I can't argue with the product Thursday night. Jones didn't suit up for four games and the Cardinals were close to unstoppable. Chris comes back and we play 30 of the worst minutes of basketball a top 25 team could play and still almost win the game. I do not think Chris is a bad player or an attitude problem. I do think he and Russ are too similar, and barring an emergency should never be on the floor at the same time. Jones is not a true point guard, he is too short to drive and create in the lane, and he needs the ball to create for himself. He is and should be Russ' backup.
Defense is improving but we have absolutely zero post presence defensively. Pitino must find ways to play Mangok more because he has to improve and I generally believe in his potential. The truth though is Mangok cannot yet comprehend Pitino's man to man defensive needs, and falls for more head fakes than any freshman I can ever remember. We are a more effective team when we play Rick's 2-3 zone. It protects our weakness in the front court, it allows for better communication, and it allows for all five guys to crash the defensive glass. Our best segments this season have been displayed when our suffocating zone comes to fruition. The zone also protects Harrell and Blackshear from getting in foul trouble.
Coach Pitino is going to do what he thinks is best and I fully trust his maneuvering. As an observer and opinionated fan of the Cardinals I do recommend that when the game is on the line and crunch time arrives we have one, and only one, lineup that should be utilized; Rozier, Smith, Hancock, Blackshear, and Harrell. This lineup offers a true point guard, the best scorer, the smartest player, an offensive threat, and our energy man and dunking superstar. These are also our most experienced players, sans Rozier, and four of our five best free throw shooters. Terry Rozier is awesome and as a freshman, to showcase the confidence and ability to calm down Russ Smith is proof enough he is our man for the present and the future.
This team is getting better, this version of our basketball Birds is working tirelessly to reach their potential, and these guys are blessed to be playing in a season where there is not one dominant team or multiple dominant teams. No one has any remote idea how this season is going to play out and I would venture to argue almost half of the tournament field has a legitimate shot to reach the final four. To reach Dallas the Cardinals must focus on a few but definite categories: defensive rebounding, assists, consistent defensive effort, post presence, and finishing ball games. The Cardinals are my team, and the correct combination will come to life over the final month of the season. Dallas is looming on the horizon, and our Birds certainly won't take their eyes off making the goal a reality.
Enjoy the ride Cardinal fans and take your blood pressure medicine in extra doses through February and March because this team will win in excruciatingly different ways each and every night they take floor. Rise and Repeat.
All Hail UofL !!