Saturday feels like an important moment for a number of reasons. One of those is that Louisville had a lot of positive vibes on its side after the final 8 minutes of its win at Georgia Tech on Monday, vibes that you fear might have been lost in the madness of the week's subsequent events.
Getting back onto the court is likely going to be a therapeutic experience for this group, as well as a reminder that while this is a new team, it's still one that's chasing an old goal. That being the case, here are five really positive things that happened near the end of Monday's game that we'd all like to see carry over into Saturday afternoon.
1. An aggressive Wayne Blackshear wanting the ball
At times in February, we've been privy to just how much more effective of a player Wayne Blackshear can be when he makes a concerted effort to drive the basketball. The amazing thing is he seems to be able to do it pretty easily, both because defenders have enough respect for his outside shot, and because he's big and athletic enough to gain the advantage necessary to get into the lane.
We saw that firsthand at the beginning of the Georgia Tech game, where Blackshear got to the basket with relative ease on three separate occasions, drawing shooting fouls on two of those efforts. What happened after that, however, was all too familiar.
Blackshear uncharacteristically bricked all four of his free-throws. A few minutes after that he had a trio of possessions where he turned the ball over twice and missed badly on a three-point attempt. And then he disappeared.
We've seen this before. Too often when things haven't gone his way, Blackshear has morphed into a player who is simply on the court looking not to make a mistake. He'll call for the ball, make a simple pass, and then if the possession ends without him being the one who screwed up, he feels like he's done his part. It's almost as though Blackshear waits until enough time has passed that people have forgotten about his miss or his turnover, and then at an assigned time he tells himself he has to jack up a semi-challenged three-pointer.
This can't happen anymore. Without Chris Jones on the floor, Blackshear becomes a player who hurts the team if he's not making an effort to play with the aggression and confidence necessary to create something in Louisville's halfcourt offense. Thankfully, we saw this attitude manifest itself in the final minutes of Monday's win, when Blackshear came through with perhaps the game's most important shot and most important rebound, and then hit a pair of free-throws in the closing seconds to seal the deal.
Wayne doesn't have to be Terry Rozier, but he does need to adopt a fraction of Rozier's offensive mentality. There are three players on Louisville's current roster who are averaging more than 3.3 points per game, and Blackshear is one of them. With that being the case, Wayne is now in a situation where if he's a neutral presence on the court, he's hurting the team. That's an easy habit to break when you're making shots, but the challenge for Blackshear from this point on is to play with the mentality of being one of the team's top scoring threats even on nights where he's turned the ball over a couple of times or missed four or five shots in a row.
2. Dillon Avare's bench intensity
The whole bench was terrific in the final 8 minutes of the Georgia Tech game, but I'm like 95 percent sure that Avare's hands were sore the next morning.
I can't think of a true Cardinal "bench star" since Jerry Smith (who didn't spend much time there), but Dillon's recent efforts demand both our respect and attention. He's made us laugh this season, he's made us cry, and now he's making us all proud.
I'm actually only like a quarter joking. The lack of bench intensity has been symptomatic of some of U of L's bigger issues this season, and one guy's energy can be really contagious.
3. Quentin Snider being a catalyst on offense
There was a period of time during Monday's game where Snider taking his man off the dribble and creating in the lane was Louisville's best offense .... even when the results weren't made shots.
I continue to be blown away by the confidence with which Snider, a true freshman whose experiences with extended periods of time on the court were extremely limited before the last couple of weeks, brings every single night. There's never any sense of a "just don't mess up" mentality. He wants to get to the rim, he wants to create open space for teammates, and if he finds that space for himself, he wants to score.
Snider's defensive play is an issue that has been discussed ad nauseum, but there's no question that his effort is there, and ultimately U of L's opponents have wound up posting just a combined 120 points in his two starts. This is his show now, and it's largely on him to make something happen during those periods where it seems like nothing is working for Louisville's halfcourt offense.
4. Ray Ganong's chair work
There was a point during the second half of Monday's game where even Ganong, the most trustworthy man associated with Louisville basketball, was off his game.
Ganong was late with the chairs after Rick Pitino unexpectedly called a timeout following Terry Rozier's three-pointer to cut Georgia Tech's lead to 7. The shocking flub drew the wrath of the Cardinal head coach.
From that point on, however, Ganong was absolutely on top of his game, a welcome sign as the team prepares for its final game before March.
5. Chinanu Onuaku bringing something to the table from the 5 spot
Recent weeks have left little doubt as to which of Louisville's much-maligned three big men gives the Cards the best opportunity to ultimately reach their ceiling.
Chinanu Onuaku has started to play with the level of confidence we often see from Rick Pitino freshmen this time of the year. It's the confidence that comes as a result of reaching a point where they feel like they know Pitino's system well enough to just be able to play instead of having to constantly second guess themselves.
Louisville doesn't need Nanu to be Jahlil Okafor ... or even Terrence Jennings. The Cards simply need someone at the 5 spot who can defend, rebound, block shots, and not do things that result in wasted possessions on the other end of the floor. Nanu is becoming that guy, and if his evolution continues over the next few weeks, then U of L's chances of making a run in the dance will get that much better.