Suddenly, at what has typically been an especially prolific point in the season for recent Louisville basketball teams, the 2014-15 Cardinals find themselves at their lowest point.
U of L is coming off its most disappointing setback to date, a 74-65 home loss at the hands of unranked and under .500 in the ACC NC State. On top of that, starting point guard Chris Jones has been mysteriously suspended and did not make the trip with the team for Wednesday night's game at Syracuse.
Neither of these things are good, but if you're looking for a silver lining with the latter, here it is: this probably had to happen, and it probably had to happen right now. I'm not talking about the suspension, per se, I'm talking about some major occurrence that was going to necessitate a change.
For all the positives he's brought to the table over the course of the last two years (and it's lazy to just gloss over those right now when things aren't going so hot), Jones has also consistently stuck out for the wrong reasons. It's been impossible to ignore the Cardinal point guard's disproportionately emotional displays since his arrival; arguing every other call with the officials, pouting on the bench after being taken out of a game, talking back to his head coach. The fact that the displays were and are still such rarities from Jones' teammates has made them that much more difficult to disregard.
An early season benching seemed to effectively curtail Jones' "episodes," as he was, with rare exception, brilliant during Louisville's first four weeks of ACC play. Then, another setback. His selfish play was the primary culprit in a 6-point second half deficit against Pitt, a crime which once again relegated him to the bench as his teammates mounted a furious and complete rally without him.
Only this time, the message apparently didn't make it all the way through.
Despite scoring well, Jones' play appeared to wear thin on his teammates during the second half of the loss to the Wolfpack. There was a moment where the disconnect was principally noticeable after the point guard was fouled on an especially reckless drive to the basket. He got up and appeared to have words with a couple of displeased fellow Cardinals, Montrezl Harrell in particular. Jones attempted to lighten the discontent by clapping and shouting "let's go" after sinking the first freebie, but it was pretty clear his brethren still weren't totally on board with what was happening.
Pitino didn't go so far as to say what Jones did Tuesday night, but his "one game suspension for now, maybe more later" language leads me to believe the transgression was something relatively minor that none of us would have difficulty believing. It also leads me to believe that Jones making the change necessary to be who this team needs him to be in March wasn't going to happen without something this drastic.
The timing of the event works in U of L's favor on multiple levels. First, if Quentin Snider is thrust into the starting lineup tonight, at least it's going to be against a Syracuse team that isn't going to put a significant amount of pressure on him and which doesn't have high-scoring guards capable of taking advantage of his defensive limitations. This could be a game where Q thrives and builds up some confidence for a stretch run that suddenly might rely on him more than he ever could have imagined. In the grander scheme of things, however, the more hopeful scenario in Pitino's eyes is likely that Jones returns to the team either this weekend or next week with a changed attitude, the squad regroups and goes on a run, and Louisville is the best version of itself by March.
With Selection Sunday less then a month away, this is very much a now or never situation for U of L's starting point guard. Either he returns fully committed to being a better teammate and a better point guard, or the Cards are going to ante up with a freshmen backup who has the potential to handle the situation quite well.
This isn't where any of us wanted to be on Feb. 18, but maybe it's where we have to be in order to have any shot at yet another memorable March. We'll know a little bit more after tonight.