Though he hasn't mentioned it much lately, Rick Pitino's traditional mantra each season since the '13 title has been, "We're not a very good defensive team yet."
Before this season, U of L's coach was firm that man to man would be this year's primary D. Of course, The Rick, as Cardinals fan have learned during his reign, could teach The Donald a thing or two about talking through both sides of his mouth.
Louisville's D, a lot of man surely, but just as much or more match up zone, has been the best in the land for weeks now. At least that's what the numbers say,
(Though I'm inclined to inquire of potential foes, would you rather play against the Cards' D or West Virginia's? But that's another discussion for another time.)
This Duke game to see which team would creep above .500 in the ACC would be the ultimate test of that. Though this season's Blue Devils are a team in some disarray, Coach K's squads are always fundamentally sound, and generally able to exploit any holes their foe's might reveal.
That wasn't to be this Saturday noon. The Cardinals indeed showed there's no better defensive contingent in the land.
And, on a day when it forced Duke into 18 turnovers, and allowed the visitors but 8 assists on 22 made FGs, there was one U of L defensive stop that topped them all.
Twas a thing of beauty, it was.
At the 9:46 mark, Mangok Mathiang (3/3 from the field) spun in a lay up to put Louisville back up by five, 54-49. The Blue Devils scurried the ball up court and it was classic Duke. They moved the ball quickly and adroitly. Cuts. Sharp passes. Probing inside, then out.
Yet, thanks to a Louisville five that must have appeared to be defending with seven, the visitors were never able to find an open man, though they surely thought they had several times. Louisville, with quick feet and panache, countered every move in the sequence. Covering the weakside. Cutting off the drives. Closing in on the shooters. Switching perfectly every second.
Until with the shot clock just short of zero, Luke Kennard attempted to drive it to the hoop. Along the way he was stripped by Quentin Snider (3 pilfers on the day), who raced to the other end, stopped and popped a legit three. Which missed, but . . .
. . . Q grabbed his own errant attempt, prolonging the possession, which ended with a Ray Spalding +1, to push the Cards ahead, 57-49.
All together now: Ball Game!
Duke never got closer than 5 the rest of the way.
* * * * *
Throughout, the first half, which was dominated by Anas Mahmoud (13 points, 7 rebounds, and who knows how many shot alterations), I kept thinking back to his first intersquad scrimmage at the Yum! The one where fans looked at each other in wonder at each of his clever passes and mature court presence.
Despite several previous top notch performances, this was the Coming Out Party for the Kid from Cairo (Egypt not Illinois), the one promised that first day he stepped on the Yum! court.
He finished with 17 points, 11 rebounds, 2 official blocks and oh so many shot alterations.
While making "America's #1 Recruit" Harry Giles look like a lost rookie without a clue.
With constantly improving Spalding's 11 and Mango's 7 off the bench, the Cards got 45% of their points from the three Bigs.
As Martha Stewart would say, "It's a good thing."
* * * * *
How about Louisville's maturity?
The tilt got off to a tentative start. Both teams were nervous. The Cards took the first half lead for good with 5:08 to go before the break, pushing ahead by 8. Duke cut their deficit to four at the stanza buzzer, when U of L inexplicably didn't hold the ball for a last shot.
Duke regained the advantage with 17:50 to play, but the Cards held steady.
Louisville soon enough forged ahead on a Mango slam. Which was followed by a Donovan Mitchell steal, leading to a V.J. King layup. Followed by a Quentin Snider steal, leading to a Ray Spalding layup, who scored again next trip after an empty Duke possession.
Duke was held scoreless during that interlude.
Did I mention how very very good Louisville's defense was?
So I have.
* * * * *
A shout out to V.J., who had far and away his best game defensively.
He did a stalwart job checking Luke Kennard, denying the Blue Devil longballer from getting the rock where he could launch.
Plus King tallied 7 and grabbed three rebounds.
* * * * *
Which brings me to Q.
Who steadily and assuredly has turned this into his team. He of the oh so quiet and impassive mien has asserted himself as the team leader.
Against Duke, he scored when it was necessary, tallying 13 including 3 treys. He got the ball to others for a score when necessary, garnering 6 assists against only a couple turnovers. He hits the boards when the Cards needed a carom from a guard, grabbing 5 rebounds. Plus those three thefts.
Two of those long balls came late and were significant. After a couple of FTs by Luke Kennard cut Louisville's lead to five, Q's trey seconds later pushed it to 64-56. Then after a Grayson Allen airball, Q with another bomb immediately increased the advantage to 10, 74-64.
* * * * *
Oh yeah, that Louisville Cardinal defense.
It forced Duke into missing its last four FG attempts and 7 of its last 9.
Plus U of L stole the ball 7 times.
* * * * *
In the opening half, U of L had 9 assists on 11 made baskets. 82%. While allowing Duke just 2 on 11 FGs.
Meaning, the Cardinals forced Duke into a one on one game, thanks to stellar -- That's right I'm going there again: Defense.
* * * * *
One has to believe Mike Krzyzewski, recovering from back surgery, was watching the game.
So I gotta ask, why didn't he pull a Denny Crum?
Remember that game years ago, when Denny was felled by one of those winter colds and coughs he suffered regularly. This one was worse than usual, so Crum had to stay home for a game at Freedom Hall. But he kept phoning in instructions to trainer Jerry May at the end of the bench.
Of course, I have to mention Grayson Allen. (Otherwise my sportswriters license would be revoked.)
The kid has a wild eyed Charles Manson look. Seeing how his teammates immediately pulled him away from any possible altercation situation confirmed to me that he has serious and still to be fully addressed anger control issues.
While what goes around comes around, it seemed like the officials didn't give him any breaks when he was physically challenged by a Cardinal. Including a no call when Donovan Mitchell intentionally slapped his face when they both hit the floor for a loose ball.
* * * * *
Speaking of winter ailments, because of really bad chest cold, now moving into my sinuses, I had to watch the game at home.
My system is full of Acetaminophen, Guaifenesen, Phenylephrine, Dextromethorphan and Ricola's Original Swiss Herb Cough Suppressant Throat Drops.
But ya know what the real antidote for my condition is, the naturally soothing relief that lasts . . . that's right . . . a 78-69 win over Duke.
-- Seedy K