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Extended thoughts: Louisville 90, Syracuse 66

It was fun and awesome and cool.

Syracuse v Louisville Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In an effort to preempt the pushback that’s certain to come from some in response to this post, let me preface these (mostly) wildly enthusiastic thoughts with this: The way Louisville played Wednesday night against Syracuse does not excuse the way it played last week against Georgia Tech or, especially, against Clemson. The performance against the Orange also doesn’t mean that all of the issues we discussed last week have been magically fixed, nor does it guarantee that this team has played its last clunker of the season.

Having said that, let’s get into why Wednesday’s absolute beatdown of Jim Boeheim and the boys felt so significant and elicited so much happiness.

First and most obviously, I think there was legitimate concern that the team we saw at Clemson on Saturday could be the team we saw for the rest of the year. It wasn’t everyone — down 15 with three minutes to go, Dwayne Sutton was still playing like it was a tie game in the final minute of the Final Four — but there were multiple U of L players in that game who appeared desperate to be doing anything other than playing high-level college basketball. When you see that in mid-February and you toss in what happened during this stretch a year ago for good measure, it’s understandable to be worried over the potential of this becoming “a thing.”

To me, Wednesday night put those fears to bed. That’s not to say that there aren’t poor performances still left to be had or that certain players aren’t going to have more nights where they seem to be just off. It’s merely an acknowledgement that our greatest concerns after the Clemson game — there’s some great internal feud happening behind the scenes that has left this team irrevocably broken or these guys have just stopped caring for absolutely no reason and are simply ready for the season to be done — were unfounded. With the last week of February just around the corner, that’s comforting.

Now what the Syracuse game also showed us is that there’s zero excuse for this team to play another second of live action with any less focus or intensity than it played with Wednesday night. If they do that, they’re going to be able to play with any team in the country when the lights get their brightest. If there’s a reversion, the results are going to be what they were a week ago.

The time for lesson learning has come and gone. From this point forward, you have to be playing balls out every night from now until whenever your tournament run ends. The performance against ‘Cuse gives us hope that this is going to be exactly what we see. That’s why it was so important.

—Our long regional starting lineup nightmare has come to an end.

I know a lot of people had a lot of different thoughts on the matter, but I think DJ, Ryan, Jordan, Dwayne and Malik was the desired starting five that I saw the most often. It’s also my personal preference, especially against a team like Syracuse.

I get that playing 30 minutes off the bench is still playing 30 minutes, but this was the right time to make the move. There’s no reason to keep having slow starts if you don’t have to, especially when those starts have played at least some part in four of your five losses.

After the game, Mack confirmed that David Johnson is your new starting point guard moving forward. He also seemed to indicate that Malik Williams will be your every day starter at center, but said the two guard is a spot that could fluctuate based on opponent. Ryan was obviously a great matchup for Syracuse, maybe Darius or Fresh is the better play against North Carolina on Saturday. We’ll find out soon enough.

I also really enjoyed this.

—Ryan McMahon played virtually every meaningful minute of this game, and it’s not hard to understand why. If he hadn’t shot as well as he did, McMahon’s mere presence on the floor was stretching the ‘Cuse zone well beyond the three-point line and creating huge gaps for his teammates on every possession.

It’s easy not to get worn down against Syracuse’s zone, so if you want to play a guy 40 minutes against them, you can. The other side of that coin is that Darius Perry played only seven minutes, and four of those came when the result was already well in hand. I don’t think that’s necessarily indicative of what is going to be a long-term trend, I think it’s just indicative of how vital having Ryan on the floor was to Louisville’s success against the 2-3.

Darius played really well in the ACC tournament loss to North Carolina last year, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see him get big minutes and make the most of those minutes on Saturday.

—Yes, Jordan Nwora was 6-of-19 from the field, but I think the most important thing is that none of the 19 shots he took were bad. There were no highly contested, one-dribble, step-back 25-footers early in the shot clock. Jordan created good mid-range looks for himself and he allowed the offense to get him open looks from beyond the arc. That’s a big step back in the right direction after whatever the hell last week was.

—Unfortunately, we can’t just gloss over this ...

First of all, that D’Angelo Russell-esque spin from DJ is Boner Jams 2020. Second, what is the deal with this team missing a billion dunks? One more performance like Wednesday’s and the “Doctors of Clunk” nickname is going to start sticking.

—For all the jokes about the players only meeting this week, the captains who called it sure held up their end of the deal. We already talked about McMahon’s value, but both Dwayne Sutton and Malik Williams were absolute warriors. Sutton — who played probably the worst game of his college career last year at Syracuse — finished with 16 points, eight rebounds, a block, a steal, and a way-too glossed over five assists. Williams had a double-double with 12 minutes to go in the game, and finished with 14 points and 13 boards.

This is the time of the year where your alphas absolutely have to step up, especially when their team’s dealing with a little bit of adversity. All three Cardinal captains checked that box against Syracuse.

—One of my favorite moments from the beginning of the game was when David Johnson was trailing late on defense and yelled at Sutton to slide over and guard Buddy Boeheim so he could take Elijah Hughes (Syracuse’s leading scorer) who had the ball. He tried to do this twice, and both times Dwayne hit him with the “look, I get that you’re hot shit, but you’re still a freshman and this end of the floor is my world; I’ve got the star, you’ve got Boeheim.”

Johnson took Boeheim and Sutton stayed on Hughes.

—I had forgotten how much I missed crabby Jim Boeheim press conferences after getting the shit kicked out of him by Louisville.

The best part about the Ken Pom rant is that the stats Boeheim was taking issue with aren’t even Pomeroy’s.

—There is a tiny piece of me that is slightly sad that Wednesday night might have been the last time we got to hear Dick Vitale tell the Ryan McMahon origin story. Unless Ryan drills a buzzer-beater in the Final Four or something, in which case Dickie V. will work the story into every game he calls from now until the end of time. Because Vitale’s not retiring until the world ends.

—In a less flattering Dickie V. blurb ...

Dick Vitale in the first half: “I hate to say it, but Ryan McMahon has become too one-dimensional. He has become a one-dimensional player.”

Dick Vitale 45 minutes later: “He’s more than just a jump shooter. He’s really gotten so much better at handling and passing. He’s also doing a great job defensively on Girard. That’s why he’s playing so many minutes.”

Vitale also argued that Boeheim didn’t deserve a technical foul after Boeheim basically walked out to the Dunking Cardinal Bird at midcourt and did pantsless snow angels.

Dwayne’s block was clean too.

Maybe a tiny bit of body.

Not enough to warrant a whistle though.

—The moment this game was over was the possession early in the second half where David Johnson outworked every Syracuse player on the floor for an offensive rebound, found Jordan Nwora (who had just missed three quick shots to start the half), who drove to the basket for an and-one. It was the loudest eruption of the night from the crowd and then the moment where it really felt like any hope the Orange had of making this their night was gone.

That is a bad defensive rebounding team, and props to the Cards for taking full advantage of it.

—It was awesome seeing Montrezl Harrell back in the building, even though it drives me nuts that U of L still can’t publicly acknowledge him because of the “disassociation.” There were a number of tweets about Trez taking the time to pose for pictures with everyone who asked, which quickly proved to be accurate because I think I saw a billion “me and Trez” photos on social media in the two hours after the game ended.

Come back soon. Teach our guys how to dunk.

—He didn’t get as much attention as Trez, but Nate Johnson was also in the house Wednesday night.

Nate’s freshman season forever.

—There was a stretch of about three minutes near the end of the second half where Joe Girard killed multiple defenders off the bounce and we let Buddy Boeheim step into catch and shoot three-pointers (the one thing you absolutely cannot do against him) four times. Outside of that, our defense was phenomenal.

—One of the most interesting things Mack said after the game was that part of the reason he was so hesitant to move DJ into the starting lineup was because Fresh Kimble’s biggest value is that he’s the team’s best communicator on defense. He added that he only felt comfortable starting David if he also started Malik, because Malik is the only guy who communicates on defense as well as Fresh.

—Speaking of Fresh, there wasn’t one part of me that thought he might pout or be discouraged over being taken out of the starting lineup. The guy is an absolute dog who just wants to win basketball games. Mack knows that and he loves it, which is part of the reason why we got the chest bump seen ‘round the city.

—I was trying to think of who Malik’s late-season emergence could be compared to, and this is probably the best call:

Every championship team has at least one good role player morph into a great role player at this point in the season. Malik has certainly been on that track these last few weeks.

—Shoutout to the Quinn Slazinski three, the Oddomatic free-throws, and Hogan Orbaugh fouling the absolute shit out of a guy to make sure he made the box score.

—Reverse shoutout to Boeheim full-court pressing our walk-ons while down 24 in the final minute.

—I really though Mack might kill Samuell Williamson after he took quick shots on back-to-back possessions when the game was out of reach late in the second half. The second of those shots was blocked and then kicked out of bounds, resulting in a poorly timed stoppage of play for Sam. Mack huddled with his assistants, calmed himself with a couple of “what the fuck is he doing?”’s, and then calmly addressed his players.

After the game, Mack did praise Sam’s passing against the zone in the first half, which was notably impressive.

—The more things change, the more Louisville remains Syracuse’s dad.

—The possession where Steven Enoch destroyed poor Marek Dolezaj’s face twice in one 10-second span was one of the funniest things I’ve seen all season. Dolezaj is standing there still dazed and holding his face from the first elbow. Enoch has the ball and dozens of options, and chooses the one thing you absolutely cannot do, and charges directly into the man standing directly in front of him, drilling Dolezaj in the face for a second time.

Very old Big East.

—Girard is going to be an absolute killer in this league for the next three years. I wish he’d come here.

—All things considered, I don’t think Wednesday night couldn’t have gone any better. Louisville rediscovered itself and beat the hell out of a desperate team in the process. Everyone played with a renewed energy. And then Duke laid a total egg in Raleigh, pushing us back to the top of the ACC standings.

We’ve had the bounce-back game a few times before. The time for maintaining that level of focus and effort should be here now. Saturday is a perfect opportunity to prove that it is.

Let’s beat North Carolina and then gear up for a hell of a showdown Monday night in Tallahassee.