Perserverance: (per●se●ver●ance - noun - steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success)
I've always worked hard at being the type of die-hard Louisville Basketball fan who looks at things objectively, especially during the moments when it's easiest not to do so. Now have I let my frustrations flow like a faucet at times in years passed? Sure. Hell, I've been known to have legendary knee jerk reactions with the best of ‘em and have even found creative ways to air my anger out onto Twitter and other social media outlets. And following one of the more brutal home losses in recent memory this past Saturday to then 11th ranked Virginia, the setting was ideal for me, and other UofL fans I am certain, to throw a fit, get mad and ultimately turn sour on this Louisville team despite them having exceeded expectations of many naysayers up to this point in the 2015/16 season.
Now, let's not get it twisted. Watching Virginia methodically dismantle the Cards damn near ruined this past weekend for me personally. You see losing is one thing, but to watch the team you love get essentially embarrassed on their home floor is just painful. But with that said, there's always that little thing they call perspective that's free and available to keep things real.
First and foremost, this Louisville team has earned and deserves not only the respect of the UofL fan base but its trust as well. It's easy to forget that A) a Hall of Fame head coach roams the sidelines for my alma mater and knows how to right the ship and B) these kids WANT to succeed and make us as fans proud of the product on the floor. So, having thought about those two things in addition to the popular opinion that this is one of the more "likeable" teams in UofL history, I decided to take the loss to Virginia quietly and in stride and began looking at what lied ahead. Can I say I was confident in that moment? I'd be lying if I said I did. It's kinda hard to get overly confident about your squad's chances of taking down the 2nd ranked team in the country (1st in the coaches poll) and the current leader of the ACC after laying an egg the size of Middletown against the Cavaliers 48+ hours earlier.
Thankfully, basketball players such as the ones that wear the Louisville jersey have minds of their own and they also have Rick Pitino. In one of my previous pieces I was transparent in saying that I have had occasional issues with Pitino as a head coach during his ongoing stint at UofL. But, in the same admission, I openly admit that my haste has been related almost primarily to recruiting but not his coaching and certainly NOT his ability to get a team prepared for a big game and/or opponent. And on Monday night in front of a captive ESPN audience and 22K+ in the seats at the Yum! Center, this Louisville team needed someone who could formulate a winning game plan better than anyone. Thankfully, they had it in Pitino and the rest would be history - Cards 71 Tar Heels 65 - as Louisville finally got the resume' padding win it has needed since the season began. In taking a quick look back at the big win over UNC, there are three key takeaways I had as a casual observer and novice blogger.....
❶ Damion Lee and Trey Lewis' leadership is irreplaceable
It's no secret that this year's Louisville team is young and still, for the most part, inexperienced. Last night proved yet again, that when the Cards' two 5th year seniors show up and produce, good things tend to happen. After struggling mightily against Virginia, Damion Lee rose to the occasion yet again (reference Michigan State/Kentucky games) and put Louisville on his back. And despite making some very uncharacteristic turnovers throughout parts of the game, Trey Lewis also made some big plays down the stretch including two crucial free throws to ice the game away. Can UofL win against top flight competition w/out the L & L boys producing? Not likely. But can they win against those same teams when they both play up to their potential capabilities? It's been proven as such.
❷ Louisville's "bigs" continue to grow (skill-wise, not physically)
Few things have been more pleasing to the Cardinal fans eyes' than the development of Chinanu Onuaku from last season to the present. Onuaku has established himself as a legitimate post threat offensively and, when not hampered with foul trouble, is a double/double threat virtually every time he steps on the court. I have not seen a big man "make the jump" from one season to the next as well as Onuaku has since Gorgui Dieng and before that, Felton Spencer. Against UNC, Onuaku maintained his composure after getting hit with two first half fouls before the 10 minute mark and was a force in the second half. Along with Onuaku, sophomore C Anas Mahmoud had yet another game where he was a legitimate factor. His razzle dazzle behind the back pass to Lee in transition for a bucket in the 1st half was terrific but his ability to catch the ball in the post with his back to the basket and then consistently find ways to score pleased me far more. The natural talent is there, it is evident when you watch Mahmoud play. If he continues to get stronger, and I suspect he will, then he's going to be a force to recken with down the road.
- Admitted personal fantasy: Ray Ganong reads this and immediately pulls Anas out of his dorm room to work out & eat a large pizza & a bag of Munchos
❸ The Yum! Center crowd was lit on Monday night
Louisville has a long tradition of not only having arguably the greatest fans in all of college basketball but also one of the better in game atmospheres in the KFC Yum! Center. As a former season ticket holder and still a frequent returnee to games, I have seen matchups first-hand where the Yum! Center crowd almost willed its team to win or at least provided them with enough energy to help enable them in destroying its opponent. The same can obviously be said for Freedom Hall undoubtedly, but keeping things recent I think back to the 2013 win over Kentucky, the "Miracle on Main" win over Marquette in 2012 and the destruction of eventual NCAA Champion UCONN by 33 points in 2014. Monday night's win over UNC struck me as one of those type games where the crowd was involved from start to finish, electric throughout. The players seemed to feed off the vibes and I think it certainly played a factor in the overall outcome. Kudos to the fans!
So, just two days removed from being virtually knocked out by Virginia, Louisville gathered it's footing and answered the bell. They persevered.
And by beating a very good North Carolina team (some would argue the favorite to cut down the nets in April), Louisville finally registered that marquee win that had so narrowly escaped its grasp on two other occasions earlier this season. A convincing win over Boston College this Saturday could help continue the newly built momentum, and I selfishly expect that to happen. From there, the seatbelts will need to be buckled as the Cards enter into a brutal stretch of games with the likes of Duke (2), Miami, Notre Dame & Virginia (again). A slate of games that once looked to be a daunting task, however, now appears to be a myriad of golden opportunities considering this Louisville team has proven to its observers, and more importantly itself that they CAN beat a top 20 team. February is gonna be a blast, folks. March could potentially be even better.