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Some extended thoughts on Louisville’s win over Pitt

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Thought one: 4-0.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 05 Pitt at Louisville Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’m the 8,000th person you know who’s been a bit under the weather the last couple of days, but this weird ass game demands some extended attention, so let’s do that.

—We’ll start off with a positive here, and the biggest from Wednesday night was the play of El Ellis.

When Ellis went off against Michigan State last month, Chris Mack rightfully pointed out after the game that it was sort of a playing with house money situation. The Cards were down big, and if Ellis was missing all the shots that he was making during that ridiculous individual stretch, it really wouldn’t have mattered all that much. Mack wanted to see Ellis produce in the same way at a time when a game was still very much on the line.

Well, it’s safe to say that happened against Pitt. If Ellis doesn’t activate God Mode and go off for 18 points in 19 minutes, Louisville almost certainly takes a loss it could not afford to take.

One of the reasons I’ve been pessimistic about this team “getting right” and making the NCAA tournament with some degree of ease is that it’s a group that feels much closer to its ceiling than other recent U of L teams that have had a rough run through non-conference play or rough stretches in January. If Louisville is going to make a leap, it’s going to take (at the very least) a key player or two taking their games to another level over the course of the eight weeks ahead.

Ellis is one of the few players on the team, and I think the only guard, with room for this type of evolution. Jarrod West, Noah Locke and Mason Faulkner have all played four or more seasons at the Division-I level and more or less are who they are at this point. Ellis is the one guard you watch play and think “if he can put a couple of things together, he has the chance to be so much more than he’s been so far this season.”

The next step is obvious: He’s gotta find some level of consistency. The days of looking like the best player in college basketball one night and a guy who couldn’t crack the JV starting lineup at Fairdale the next need to stop. And I think Florida State on Saturday should provide him with an opportunity to start taking that next step.

The Seminoles are bigger and more athletic than any ACC team Louisville has faced so far, and their high-pressure on-ball defense has given the Cardinals fits for years now. Ellis is the one guard U of L has who possesses the quickness to consistently get around FSU defenders and get the ball into the paint without making a pass. The question is going to be whether or not El can make the right decision once he gains that advantage.

In the second half against Pitt, John Hugley was in foul trouble and wasn’t going to contest anything at the rim. That gave Ellis an opening to not just get to the basket, but to finish with ease once he was there. That won’t be the case against a Florida State team that, once again, has a frontcourt that appears to be composed of the Game of Thrones giants who lived beyond the wall.

El’s biggest issue this season — outside of inexplicably dribbling the ball off his foot with no defenders around — has been over-penetrating. He’ll beat his man off the bounce, and then drive straight into a pair of 6’10 guys, leave his feet, and then either shoot the ball into one of their armpits or throw it away. This can’t happen on Saturday. If FSU’s rim protectors are in solid positions, we’re going to need El to either make a good pass to an open shooter on the perimeter, hit a cutter for a layup, or knock down some midrange jumpers.

We need Good El Ellis to finally win again in Tallahassee. If that happens, then GEE might just be around for good.

—I really wish I could just make a joke about the Chris Mack tech, follow it up with some sort of “a win is a win” quip and move on, but I can’t because I’m still a little mad about it. And quite frankly, I think all Louisville fans have the right to still be a little mad about it.

I can’t speak for the 75 or so years of Cardinal basketball that took place before I was born, but in my lifetime, a Louisville head coach has never gotten a worse technical than the one Chris Mack got Wednesday night.

The refs were atrocious. No one is debating this. Your crew is soft as hell if you whistle six technicals in a game where there’s no sort of physical altercation.

The thing is, the technical on Mack wasn’t the first of the game, it wasn’t even the third or fourth. It was the sixth. Not only that, his team captain had just been T’d up on the bench about a minute earlier.

At this point, Mack has to be aware of the situation and understand that there is a very non-zero chance that he gets hit with a T if he says anything over the game’s final 15 seconds. This man is paid very, very well to win basketball games. He knows in this moment that if he simply keeps his mouth shut for 15 seconds, his team is going to win a basketball game that would be a catastrophic loss if it went the other way. With that being the situation, it is beyond me how Mack could make the conscious decision to say whatever he said to the officials. Maybe he was standing up for his player, maybe he just couldn’t help himself; I don’t know. Regardless, whatever was said absolutely could have waited until after the final horn sounded.

If Jamarius Burton’s shot goes down — and my god it certainly looked good from the ACC Network camera angle — and Louisville loses at home in overtime to the worst team in the league, I think it would have had to have gone down as the most unforgivable U of L loss of my lifetime. Not “worst” loss or “most heartbreaking” (what up, 2018 Virginia, 2019 Duke and pretty much any NCAA tournament loss), but certainly the most unforgivable.

Thank goodness the shot was long, or the last two days would have been pure madness around here.

—The similarities between the end of this game and the 2011 “cheerleader game” are not lost on me.

I guess we should expect something wild as hell when Pitt comes to the Yum Center in the winter of 2033. As long as it ends with a missed Panther three at the horn, I’m good.

—Game notes from U of L:

  • Louisville is now 21-6 all-time against Pittsburgh, including a 12-1 mark in Louisville.
  • The Cardinals have won five straight in the series and 17 of the last 18 meetings between the two teams.
  • Louisville is 4-0 in conference play for the second consecutive season.
  • This marks the sixth time the Cardinals have started 4-0 in conference in consecutive seasons (also 1966-67/1967-68, 1973-74/1974-75, 1978-79/1979-80, 1982-83/1983-84, 2002-03/2003-04).
  • UofL’s 75 points were its highest total in a conference game this season.
  • Louisville improved to 4-0 this season in games decided by five points or less.
  • The Cardinals finished 24-of-50 (48 percent) from the field for the second consecutive game.
  • Louisville made eight of its final nine shots over the final 8:18 of the game.
  • UofL is 9-0 this season when it shoots a higher percentage than the opposition.
  • Louisville picked up 35 points off the bench in the victory, the fifth game this season with at least 35 from the reserves.
  • The Cardinals were 20-for-30 from the free throw line, their second highest total in both categories this season.
  • Louisville is 8-0 when shooting more free throws than its opponent.
  • Louisville grabbed eight offensive rebounds and turned them into 13 second chance points.
  • The Cardinals have tallied at least 10 second chance points in eight games this season.
  • The two teams were called for 46 fouls on Wednesday night, the most in a Louisville game since there were 47 at Boston College on Jan. 2, 2021.

—This game was never going to be a thing of beauty, as neither team shoots the ball well, Pitt leads the ACC in free-throw attempts, and Louisville leads the ACC in the same category in league games only.

That said, it was absolutely a top tier uniform matchup with Script Pitt taking on the Cardinal throwbacks.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 05 Pitt at Louisville Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Gorgeous.

Also, Burton wearing the mask on his chin after the game’s opening segment was hilarious and absurd. Maybe we could have protested if we’d lost.

—I said on Wednesday’s radio show that I was worried about Malik making this game overly personal both because of his history with Pitt (“take that shit off your head”) and because of how hyped his individual matchup with John Hugley was going to be.

It’s safe to say that happened.

Malik was dialed up from the opening tip, but in a self-destructive way, not in a leadership way. The result was his worst stat line of the season: No made field goals, just four rebounds, one assist, one steal, four turnovers, and the first player in Louisville history to finish a game with six fouls.

Williams has been Louisville’s best player so far this season. I don’t think there’s really much debate about that. That said, as a sixth-year guy, he still has to recognize his limitations and finesse his game around them.

All things being equal, Hugley is a more talented offensive player than Malik is. He just is. In order to get the better of his counterpart, Malik needs to rely on his superior defensive ability and basketball IQ. While Hugley is a very capable post scorer in one-on-one situations, the bulk of Malik’s points are going to be products of the offense around him. And that’s fine. If Hugley had scored 11, but Malik had scored 16, would it really have mattered how Malik got those points? Of course not.

That’s why when Hugley scores on a nice move in the post, the last thing Louisville needed Malik to do was demand the ball in the post and then immediately hoist a face-up, fadeaway 16-footer. That’s never been his game, and getting some national love these last couple of weeks doesn’t change that.

For the first time this season, Malik let the moment take him out of his game. It was disappointing to see from a guy who’s career here started during the Clinton Administration, but hopefully it was a mere blip in the middle of a stellar final run as a Cardinal.

—This game is exactly why you take Sydney Curry.

He’s not a guy who’s going to demand 15-25 minutes of court time every single night, but there are going to be a handful of matchups on your schedule where he’s going to be a better option in the middle than the other 15 or 16 centers currently on the roster.

Curry is about the same height as Hugley and has a couple of pounds on him. Because of this, he was able to defend the Panther star in a way that Malik (or Rose or whoever else) simply can’t. He was physical, he was relentless, he was altogether terrific.

Final stats: 18 minutes played, 3-of-3 from the field, 2-of-2 from the stripe, 8 points, 8 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal.

—I love that Noah Locke is establishing a reputation for himself as a late-game assassin.

Having a guy with that much confidence when it comes to big shots at the end of close games is an invaluable asset.

—The numbers don’t really tell the story, but I thought Sam was also terrific in this game, especially in moments where Louisville seemed to be floundering.

When the Cards were on the verge of one of their offensive dry spells, he was there with a midrange jumper. When Pitt seemed to be a basket away from seizing control, he was there with a monster block. When there was a loose ball or a rebound both teams desperately needed, he was at least getting a hand on the ball to keep it alive.

It certainly feels like the second half surge we saw from Sam last season is happening again. That’s a pretty important thing.

—”The Jae’Lyn Withers Thing” continues. I don’t know, man. I just don’t know.

—Best opposing fan interaction of the season:

You’re all right, Steve Olson.

—I can’t decide which call was worse: The rebounding foul call on Matt Cross, or the and-1 call on Malik that was whistled by the guy standing near midcourt and not the one standing two feet in front of the play.

The stripes were miserable.

—As a longtime “foul up three” guy, I have all sorts of mixed emotions about three of our four ACC wins coming via a potential game-tying three-pointer being missed just before the buzzer. It should go without saying, but it really feels like we’re playing with fire here.

—I kind of feel like we win by 10-12 if Dre Davis just makes that wide open fast-break layup late in the first half. It would have made it an 8-point game, but instead Pitt came down and got a wide open three from Ithiel Horton (who we were still refusing to guard at this point) that totally put the wind back in its sails.

—They never said who the second technical on Pitt’s bench was on, but I’m pretty sure associate head coach Tim O’Toole has now been T’d up in each of his last two visits to the Yum Center.

—I know that we have eight new scholarship players and that you shouldn’t rely too heavily on games from past seasons to analyze the one that’s about to be played, but it’s hard not to when it comes to Saturday night’s game in Tallahassee.

Whether you’ve been in the program for six seasons or six months, this one should be personal for the guys.

Chris Mack is 0-4 against FSU since arriving at Louisville, but the Seminoles’ punking of the Cards started at the tail end of the Rick Pitino era. These guys have beaten us by 13 or more in each of the last three games, they tossed L’s down at the crowd while walking off the Yum Center floor last season, they tried to fight Ryan McMahon for Christ’s sake.

Florida State hasn’t been playing as well as most people expected through the season’s first two months, but there’s still plenty of new and returning talent on that roster, and there’s still Leonard Hamilton on the sidelines. I don’t care how badly they just lost to Wake Forest, if we go down there and win on Saturday night, I’m going to be more encouraged than I’ve been at any point this season since the Bahamas.

Let’s get it done.