The ferocity of all of our fandoms has been tested in a million different ways since the fall of 2015. We all know at least one person who has “checked out” at some point between then and now. Maybe they hopped back on the ride at some point. Maybe they didn’t. It’s entirely understandable either way.
Last night, we were tasked with paying attention to a late February contest between a (probably) good ACC team and an (probably) average ACC team, not played at a particularly high level, with not many fans in attendance, and a broadcast team that kept losing one of its two voices to poor WiFi. Toss in a handful of intermittent pauses to help get a toddler to sleep, and you have my Tuesday night.
I still lived and died with every dribble. I have no idea if that’s a character flaw or a character attribute.
What I do know is that I can’t shake the care. I know that at the moment, this Louisville team doesn’t bear any resemblance to that of a Final Four — or maybe even a second weekend — contender. I know that even if it rounds into form over the next two weeks, Covid could rear its ugly head once again and blow the whole thing to shit. I know the 2021 tournament is going to represent an abnormal ending to an abnormal season.
All of that matters and has an impact on me, but not enough to keep me from living and dying with every dribble of a Louisville-Notre Dame game that had next-to-no entertainment value for an impartial observer.
Admirably devoted or irreparably damaged? It all sort of depends on the most recent result, doesn’t it?
Even with *motions wildly with both arms* all of this going on, I still need Louisville in the NCAA tournament. I still need to see that name pop up on Selection Sunday. I still need to spend those weekdays before the madness tips off on Thursday staring at potential bracket scenarios and ways for the Cards to advance further than seems reasonably possible. I still need the dream to be alive for a period of time in March.
Taking care of Notre Dame on Tuesday night was necessary for all of that. It’s why I couldn’t keep myself from holding my breath on every possession, and it’s why my mood for the next three days will be exponentially better than it would have been had the necessary rust not been shaken off after the debacle against North Carolina.
If you’re like me and you’re still here after all of this bullshit, congrats. Or I’m sorry. I’m still not sure which one is more applicable. But I’m glad we get to keep dreaming together for a bit longer.
—Let’s start the quick hitters section with an admission: When I got word Tuesday morning that David Johnson was out, I fully expected Louisville to lose this game. The weight of the last week, the carryover embarrassment from Saturday, the fact that Notre Dame had been playing pretty solid basketball; It all seemed like it was going to be too much.
I never, ever use the term “must win” unless a loss quite literally ends the season, but if Louisville loses last night, it would have been awfully hard to foresee a scenario where these next three or four weeks go any better.
—Typically, when you think of “wildcard” players, you think about instant offense guys off the bench who can come in and hit seven threes, or who can come in, miss a couple of shots, go back to the bench, and wind up having zero positive impact on the game. Jae’Lyn Withers obviously does not fit that mould, and yet I think he’s one of the biggest wildcard U of L players that I can remember.
Sometimes, you have a night like Saturday against UNC where he appears to have no clue what he’s supposed to be doing defensively and even less of a clue how to get himself involved on offense. And then you’ve got last night, where he comes out raining threes, and finishes with 13 rebounds and 12 points.
And yes, it would have been more like 24 and 13 if he had been able to finish around the rim. We all saw it. We all threw stuff. We all hope it’s going to get better.
Once Withers gets himself to the point where he’s locked in from opening tip to final buzzer (and starts making a healthier percentage of layups/dunks), he’s going to be a tremendous college player. The skills are all there, and last night gave us a glimpse of just how effective he can be when he’s playing his natural position.
—Speaking of this group’s struggles around the rim, if you thought this team was dunking less than any Louisville team you’ve ever followed, hey, you were right.
The 2020-21 Louisville team has fewer total dunks (25) and dunks per game (1.39) than any season since the dunk was re-legalized in 1976-77.— Kelly Dickey (@RealCardGame) February 24, 2021
The 2000-01 Cards hold the current low mark during that period with 46 dunks (1.48/game).
“The Medical School Dropouts Now Considering Pharmacy School of Dunk.”
—We always point to all the overtimes as the evidence of the ultra-competitiveness of this series over the years, but it’s also worth noting that from when Louisville joined the Big East in 2005 through the end of the 2015-16 season, neither team had won more than two in a row over the other. The Cards have now won six straight over the Irish.
—Even though the UNC loss came by 45 points, it was still a bit staggering to see Louisville fall 20+ spots in both the NET and on Ken Pom after a single game this late in the season. At the heart of the free-fall was U of L’s defensive effort. Every data point on the Cards heading into Saturday showed that they were pretty much incapable of letting any team shoot better than 60 percent from the floor and hang 99 points on them. When it happened, it was a shock to the core of the team’s profile.
Turning right around and holding Notre Dame — which entered the night as the 15th most efficient offense in the country — to 57 points and 36 percent shooting opened the door for a course correction. It didn’t completely invalidate the performance against North Carolina, but it proved to the various algorithms that Louisville is more like the team it was before its latest Covid pause than the performance in Chapel Hill would indicate. As a result, the Cards climbed nine spots in the NET and 10 spots on Ken Pom for simply winning a Quad 2 home game against a team with a losing record.
It’d be surprising if there’s a swing this extreme after any one of Louisville’s final three regular season games, even though a win in any one of those games would do far more for the Cards’ tournament resume than Tuesday night’s win did.
—”Basketball is like poetry in motion.”
Greatest offensive possession in Louisville basketball history. pic.twitter.com/D3nwej7oD4— Mike Rutherford (@CardChronicle) February 24, 2021
I’ve watched this probably 10 times and I still can’t believe it was real. You’ll never see less collective movement from 10 players during a 22-second possession.
The Carlik “I mean fuck it I guess” shrug right before he takes the shot is the coup de grace.
I also enjoyed some of the other takes that came in on this.
Just a symphony of ball and player movement. Balletic. But if the defense meets or exceeds your listlessness, take it.— Pat Forde (@ByPatForde) February 24, 2021
I like the part when Withers sits in a lawn chair and starts to read his messages on the right baseline.— Eric Crawford (@ericcrawford) February 24, 2021
The player movement. Screening and cutting. The crisp ball movement. Once Jones begins the set, the ball never hits floor. This should be in an instructional video.— Mike Waters (@MikeWatersSYR) February 24, 2021
“The game is unified action up and down the floor. It is quickness, it is strength; it is skill, it is stamina; it is five men playing as one…It is the solidarity of a single unifying purpose, the will to overcome adversity, the determination never to give in.” - Dr. Jack Ramsay https://t.co/t4Yseesa9A— Brendan Quinn (@BFQuinn) February 24, 2021
And then my absolute favorite ...
I don’t endorse this. Move the ball and run a real offense. This ain’t gonna work against better teams. Also, don’t settle for shots like this. You can get something better! https://t.co/gvSPwOiK6H— Trey Turner (@tbirdie21) February 24, 2021
Trey does not endorse this, folks.
—Charles Minlend is playing as hard as he can every second he’s on the floor, but it’s very easy to see that his confidence level on offense is at about negative one billion right now. He played in a freewheeling offensive system at San Francisco where he was the focal point, and now he’s out there simply hoping to avoid making a mistake. He’s not going to give us much if that mentality doesn’t change very quickly.
Chris Mack talked when Minlend first came back about the mental struggle of returning from multiple knee injuries and just not being able to move the way you’re used to moving. It certainly seems like dealing with this is a major part of the struggle for Charles at the moment.
Having said that, he had to play decent minutes in this game, and outside of getting beaten off the dribble one and air-balling his only shot attempt by about 35 feet, he did nothing to hurt the team while he was on the court.
I’m still a big Charles fan, and I hate that we’re probably never going to see the player that he could have been for us this season. But hey, crazy things happen this time of year. Maybe he has an Anton Gill moment coming at some point in the weeks ahead.
—A few game notes from U of L:
- After being outrebounded versus North Carolina, the Cardinals dominated the glass 45-30, improving to 10-1 when outrebounding the opposition this season. The big edge on the glass resulted in an 18-4 advantage in second-chance points.
- The 18 second chance points in the second highest mark of the season, trialing 20 vs. Georgia Tech.
- Hitting only 1-of-16 3-point field goals last Saturday, the Cardinals responded by connecting on 7-of-21 from behind the arc. The seven 3-point field goals were one off their season high of eight versus Western Kentucky and Boston College.
- Entering the game third in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (41.7), the Cardinals held the Fighting Irish to just 36.8 percent shooting from the floor. The Irish are the ninth opponent to shoot less than 40.0 percent from the field this year.
- Notre Dame’s 57 points scored were tied for the second-lowest output on the season (51 versus Virginia Tech, 1/27, and 57 versus Virginia, 12/30).
- The Cardinals held the Fighting Irish to two field goals in the final 6:57 of the second half.
- With 18 points, guard Carlik Jones is the first UofL player ever to score in double figures in his first 16 games as a Cardinals, breaking Damion Lee’s previous record of 15.
- Between Radford and Louisville, Jones has scored in double figures 99 times during his career.
Back in the W column! pic.twitter.com/yn491XkzA9— QSlaz (@quinnslazinski) February 24, 2021
He doesn’t always play well, but the kid brings it every game.
—Follow-up Quinn shoutout:
When Notre Dame made its final shot of the first half, there were 43 seconds left on the game clock. Seeing this and recognizing that the differential between game and shot clock wasn’t quite large enough for U of L to pull off a 2-for-1, Quinn took his time getting to the ball and then told Carlik to let it bounce after he inbounded it so that the game clock would be keep running but the shot clock wouldn’t. Carlik didn’t really understand, and wound up grabbing it with about 37 seconds, but it was still an attempt at a heady play by Quinn. He wound up getting to the line and knocking down a pair of free-throws on the possession.
The baseball pass to halfcourt with three seconds left, on the other hand, was ... less heady.
—I wonder if David Johnson being out for this game might wind up being a major boon to the final stretch of Samuell Williamson’s sophomore season. Sam had to be one of the team’s alphas for Louisville to score a critical victory, and he stepped up accordingly.
I’m not the first person to say this, but there’s no question that the biggest play of the night was Sam coming down with an all-heart offensive rebound, kicking the ball out to Carlik, and then screening the only defender in the area so that Jones could get off a clear three that pushed Louisville’s lead from five to eight. That stopped Notre Dame’s momentum dead in its tracks and U of L never again appeared to be on the verge of losing control.
Sam is now averaging 11.5 rebounds over the last four games. His midrange jumper has become perhaps the most reliable asset that any Cardinal possesses. He’s more vocal on both ends of the court, and he’s making all of the winning plays that he didn’t seem to value through the first year and-a-half of his college career.
Sam turning a corner had to happen for this team to have a shot in March. He has.
—This was a beautiful sight to see:
Pretty hook from Williams, confidently going to work down low. pic.twitter.com/CPkMNhcTw0— Tyler Greever (@Tyler_Greever) February 24, 2021
Even at 75 (maybe?) percent, it’s very apparent how much higher the ceiling can be for this Louisville team when it has its senior co-captain on the floor.
Keep getting better, big man.
—Prentiss Hubb always turns into Klay Thompson against us. He doesn’t hit every shot, but the ones he drills always seem like they’re heavily guarded 24-footers. Thankfully, Nate Laszewski doesn’t have the same tendency. That’s the second straight time Louisville has held the Irish’s leading scorer to a mere two points.
—This was the best we’ve seen Carlik Jones in a while. Not that he hasn’t been good recently, but I thought this was the best he’s been in a few weeks at finding the happy medium between recognizing that he’s the team’s best offensive player who needs to force the issue a bit ... and forcing the issue too much. He didn’t really take any bad shots, and he was also extremely effective on the defensive end against a Notre Dame team that can light you up from the outside if your guards get swallowed up by screens.
He played all 40 minutes because he had to. Hopefully that won’t be the case on Saturday, but if it is, you know he’ll be up to the task.
—Here’s the video honoring the 1986 national championship team that was played inside the arena during halftime:
3️⃣5️⃣ years since National Championship #️⃣2️⃣— Louisville Basketball (@LouisvilleMBB) February 24, 2021
Tonight, we honor the 1️⃣9️⃣8️⃣6️⃣ Louisville Cardinals.#GoCards pic.twitter.com/SOB3FXN1UV
—I haven’t mentioned Dre Davis yet, so let’s rectify that: Dre Davis was great.
—The strangest part about Cory Alexander having to call two segments of the game entirely by himself is that I didn’t even flinch. I was just like “bet the other guy’s WiFi crapped out” like I was listening to a crappy remote radio broadcast where one of the co-host’s mic stopped working.
Alexander resisting the urge to make any sort of mention of his playing days during those 10 minutes was the biggest upset of the night.