The U of L backcourt has garnered the majority of the Cardinal fan base's affection since the start of conference play, but Wednesday was a pretty thorough reminder of just how special Montrezl Harrell is.
He dominated the defensive glass, he scored in ways I didn't think were possible as recently as a month ago, and he swatted a career-high 5 shots. He carried the Cards when no one else could get anything going in the first half, and he was right in the middle of biggest "boom" moment of the season during the second. There's really not much else you need to say about the game's defining performer. When the season's finish line starts to become visible, you want your best player starting to hit his perfect stride. That certainly appears to be happening.
Obviously, the most-discussed takeaway from Wednesday night is the play of the bench and, in particular, the freshmen reserves.
Quentin Snider was terrific. The two jump shots both came at key points and were both stroked with confidence, but it was more just his overall presence with the ball in his hands that stuck out to me in this game. Too often this season we've seen U of L's reserves enter games and appear to play with a mentality of simply not wanting to make a mistake. Snider wanted the ball when he was in, and not just because he was supposed to want the want the ball as a point guard, but because he wanted to make a play. He attacked the basket successfully, he didn't force anything when it wasn't there, and he consistently got the ball to the right open man in exactly the right place. Hard work tends to payoff, and Snider's remarkable jump in confidence month from early January until now would certainly seem to reflect that.
Chinanu Onuaku was also terrific. His numbers don't really back up that statement, but he and Snider are the only members of the non-core-4 who appear like they're focused on contributing and not just trying to stay on the court when they're out there right now. He scored twice, he was in the right places on both ends of the floor, and he was more active than we've seen him at times during ACC play. The team needs at least a somewhat effective presence in the middle for March, and Wednesday was a nice step in the direction of Nanu being able to fill that role.
Shaqquan Aaron wasn't especially involved on offense and he misfired badly on his only two shot attempts, but he was on the court entire time Louisville was playing its best basketball, and he didn't seem to hurt the Cards on the defensive end of the floor. It feels weird to say about a player who had no points, no rebounds and 4 fouls, but Wednesday was still a positive experience for his evolution. Since he's become eligible, Aaron has seemed to only feel like he belongs on the court after he's hit a couple of shots. For him to have been out there and been a part of a major run despite not contributing statistically should allow him to feel more at ease and like he's more a part of a working unit the next time his number's called.
Pour one out for the consecutive games with a made three-pointer streak, which died after 23 years and 784 straight contests on Wednesday night. The 4 treys the Cards attempted was also the lowest total of the Pitino era.
We'll never forget the good times.
This was a pretty large step backward for Chris Jones, a fact probably best-evidenced by how well his team played without him in the game.
Maybe it was all the Core 4/Big 3 talk getting into his head, but Jones played with little resemblance to the player we've seen for most of 2015. He made few attempts to distribute, finishing with 2 assists and 2 turnovers in 27 minutes. Those numbers weren't the product of a suffocating defense like Virginia's either. There were multiple possessions where Jones beat his man off the dribble and had teammates wide open as a result, but he made the decision to go 1-on-3 in the lane and try to score over Pitt's bigs. It didn't work out well, and eventually his head coach decided that he'd seen enough.
We also have to discuss this: there was some pouting happening on that bench. It's the one potential big negative that could come out of what was an overwhelmingly positive evening.
Predictably, I saw a handful of comments this morning on various forms of social media taking the stance that Jones should remain on the bench and that Quentin Snider should be the team's new starting point guard. Simply calling these people stupid seems over-the-top, so I'll go this route: these people are either stupid or irrational. If you've been watching this team play since the beginning of November and still believe its best chance to make a run in March doesn't include Chris Jones playing somewhere in the vicinity of his own personal ceiling, well then I'm not sure you and I can have a worthwhile discussion about anything else regarding the 2014-15 Cards.
Louisville needs Jones, and the fact that we're now back at this "will he try to do too much/will he overcompensate and not do enough" crossroads is troublesome. Jones can be prone to making poor decisions in halfcourt sets, but he also deals with pressure better than most point guards in the Pitino era. He saved U of L a year ago in the NCAA Tournament by expertly navigating through Manhattan's press late in the game and making the "hockey passes" that set up the Cards' biggest baskets. Here's the other thing: via Synergy Sports, Jones is also Louisville's best spot-up shooter ... by a lot. Those are two pretty monster attributes that U of L is going to need if it hopes to anything memorable in the postseason.
Jones was bad on Wednesday night .... he was really bad, and Louisville was much better without him on the court. That doesn't mean it can thrive without something resembling his best self going forward. This is going to be a big week and-a-half for Chris.
It's hard to argue with this being the quote of the season up to this point.
Pitt's Jeter on Montrezl Harrell: "I wouldn’t say it was intimidation. I would just say -- scratch that. I would say it was intimidation."— Josh Abner (@joshabner) February 12, 2015
Jeter, who scored 6 points and grabbed 4 rebounds in the game, had a few more postgame gems that you can check out on Josh Abner's timeline.
Louisville has now won at least 20 games in 13 consecutive seasons. I know the 20-win threshold isn't the mile-marker it used to be, but still, that's a solid accomplishment.
Terry Rozier missed 10 shots and looked more frustrated than we're used to seeing him for the game's first 25 minutes or so .... and he still wound up playing like an absolute star. He recorded yet another double-double, and almost as impressively, was a perfect 10-for-10 from the charity stripe.
Rozier missed a whopping 20 of his first 46 free-throw attempts this season. Since then, he's gone 75-of-88 from the line, good for 85.2 percent. It's hard to overstate the importance of something like that, especially when you're talking about a guy who can get to the rim and draw contact as easily as Terry can.
I really wanted to tweet last night about this being Chris Jones in his dorm room:
And this being Trez waiting for him to come out:
But I was too terrified of what the many people who would have had no idea what I was talking about were going to think.
Maybe Anton Gill's dunk and seeing the pictures of himself all over the place this morning will get him going a little bit. He wasn't bad in his 15 minutes of action last night, but he certainly didn't have a climatic "rise to the occasion" moment in his chance to earn more PT with Wayne Blackshear sidelined.
A loss Wednesday wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world. We would have talked about changes that needed to be made going forward, about how it showcased how much the team actually does need Wayne, and how Pitt came into the Yum Center needing the victory way more than Louisville.
That said, from a more literal, non-psyche standpoint, the defeat would have been a pretty large blow to U of L's March outlook. If the Cards are serious about making it to their fifth consecutive conference championship game, then getting that double-bye and starting the tournament on Thursday is every bit as important as Pitino says it is, especially when you consider the lack of depth on this squad. A loss to the Panthers would have been a pretty big hindrance towards achieving that goal. I think you also can't say enough about the importance this year of playing your way up that 2/3 NCAA Tournament line as opposed to sliding down to a 4/5. There are only a handful of really great teams this year that serve as a really bad matchup for U of L, and avoiding them for as long as possible (i.e., Elite 8 at the earliest) gives the Cards the best shot at another memorable March run. Getting at least a 3 seed would be huge.
Not only did Louisville help itself in that department on Wednesday, it finally got some confidence for some guys coming off the bench, and its two biggest stars did exactly the types of things this team needs them to do for the rest of the year.
The Cards are now 20-4, they've got a single digit next to their name, they're going to be favored in (at least) each of their next five games, and they're right in the mix in the best college basketball conference in the country. It's mid-February in Louisville, and things are pretty good.