Louisville looked uncomfortable for 40 straight minutes in an embarrassing 69-49 loss to Syracuse Wednesday night at the Carrier Dome.
The Cardinals never discovered an effective plan of attack against Jim Boeheim’s trademark 2-3 zone, often settling for semi-contested three-pointers from multiple feet behind the line. For the game, Louisville shot just 6-of-28 beyond the arc, with four of those makes coming in the game’s closing minutes when the outcome had already been decided. From the field overall, U of L shot a season low 25.9 percent and made a season low 14 field goals.
Look, there’s no way around it, this was easily Louisville’s worst overall performance of the season, and the fact that it came with less than a month to go before Selection Sunday is deeply concerning.
It’s understandable to struggle with Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. There’s a reason Boeheim has stuck with it for 40 years. It’s something else when you come out with less fire than your opponent in a game where you both have a significant amount to play for, when you never properly adjust to the challenges presented by said zone, and when you wind up getting blown out by an undeniably average team. These are the types of losses we expected to see from U of L against big-time opponents in November and December, not against bubble teams (although probably not anymore) on Feb. 20.
“Duke broke them” is going to be a popular narrative after this performance, and who knows, maybe it’s the right one. The evidence is certainly piling up. If the team wants to dispel this portrait of themselves, they’re gonna need to start producing some tangible proof to the contrary beginning Saturday afternoon.
Louisville’s going to make the NCAA tournament. Heading into the season, most of us would have agreed that this was all we wanted from 2018-19. If we get that and only that, so be it. All things considered, that’s still an emphatic green checkmark for year one of the Chris Mack era.
My guess is the players and the coaching staff aren’t willing to settle for a re-lowering of the bar to its original slot. Not when eight days ago they were a top 16 team with a 23-point lead on the No. 1 team in the country and had the look of a squad that was ready for all challengers come March.
The Duke game can be the lasting legacy of this season in the same way the Virginia game will always be for 2017-18. Or it can be an ugly sidebar to a broader discussion of a wonderful five-month run. The coming weeks will determine which the forever image.