And a harbinger of better moments to come.
As U of L had its way with five featherweights to open the campaign, there were signs that this edition of the Cardinals would be significantly better than the pundits predicted pre-season. But, since those tilts were in essence scrimmages, it was hard to tell how this still being assembled contingent would fare when the lights were brighter, when the opponents were legit.
How good can this promising Cardinal team be?
We now know.
Trading punches while giving no quarter to an acknowledged national contender with the leading national POY candidate on its home court reveals a lot. Flaws. Gaffes. Systemic failures. Heart. Guile. Potential.
Louisville fans now see how these guys can fare when it matters. Except in the case of Deng Adel, who is still hurt, and Ray Spalding, who was only given six minutes of opportunity on the court.
* * * * *
I hate to lose. But a close, hard fought, winnable L to Sparty in East Lansing on the 2d of December is probably better than a win.
Historical perspective (You knew I was going to get there sooner or later): Early in the ’85-’86 season, a Cardinal team with similar question marks opened with a couple of easy wins in Freedom Hall, then headed to NYC for battles with #5 Kansas and #18 St. John’s. Both of which they lost.
After that team upended #1 Duke in Dallas for the national crown, coach Denny Crum was asked when he knew he had a possible national contender. He mentioned those early Cardinal losses to the Jayhawks and Johnnies.1
Which means, to skew a lyric, you don’t learn a thing if your foe ain’t got swing.
* * * * *
The Cards were led, in scoring and minutes, by the two senior one and dones.
Damion Lee was on the court for a team leading 38 minutes, and tallied a team leading 23 points.
Trey Lewis was a smidge behind in both categories, with 36 minutes of hardwood time and 21 points.
But now Rick Pitino has legit evidence and game footage to show them where they need to improve.
Lee still forced several shots, a couple way too early in the possession, from way too far out on the court. Early after the break, he tallied a fastbreak two, then stole the ball, and drained 2 FTs. But, on the next possession, when the Cards had a runout with numbers, he stopped and fired a selfish, ill advised trey from West Lansing.
He turned it over four times and only grabbed 3 rebounds. During that flurry of treys Sparty successfully launched during the segment when State grabbed the game by the short and curlies, Lee was the main guy who didn’t get out to the corner as Denzel Valentine and (former Cleveland State teammate of Trey Lewis) Bryn Forbes staked their claim as Treyville’s leading citizens.
Lewis learned that at this level of competition, you can’t just dribble into the forest around the hoop, and make something happen like you could in the Horizon League. As the game got tighter and closer to conclusion, he fell prey to that habitual character trait.
The Rick now has suitable evidence to show this duo how the Cards system works best when the ball is moving among players, and they allow the game to come to them, instead of attempting to force their will.
* * * * *
Chinanu Onuaku hopefully, finally has learned, what he should have already learned.
He needs to be on the floor. He needs to stop his stupid fouling. Duh.
U of L’s starting center only played ten minutes. Of his six boards on the night, he snared four in the game’s opening 3:33. A minute later, he was on the bench for the rest of the stanza in foul trouble.
Onuaku’s +/- was +10. The only Cardinal with a double figure positive. Again, in just ten minutes of play.
To repeat, he needs to play smarter, and stay on the court.
* * * * *
There were so many coulda woulda shoulda moments that, had they gone the other way, U of L might have prevailed.
The four point turnaround right at the end of the first half. Lewis, running the Sosa play, fed Anas Mahmoud, who missed a point blank layup. State scurried down court, and Valentine dipsy dooed in a bank shot. Instead of a 34-27 Cardinal lead, the score at the break was 32-29.
Mahmoud, who saw far and away the most significant action of his career, grabbed 6 rebounds, swatted away 3 Spartan attempts and had a steal. He also missed a couple of other FG attempts from right in close.
Not good, and hopefully something we shan’t see again from a rookie: Donovan Mitchell’s foul of Valentine at midcourt in the the final minute, after Lewis’s three FTs pulled U of L within a deuce at 63-65.
* * * * *
Despite my nitpicking — Sorry, it’s just who I am — I was not despondent after the loss. It was a positive experience all in all. Especially since the Card got only ten minutes of action from Onuaku and Deng Adel.
Anas Mahmoud is playing more aggressively.
Mangok Mathiang is displaying some heretofore hidden offensive panache.
Donovan Mitchell is a baller.
The Cards were 9/11 at the line after intermission.
U of L led for 31 and a half minutes in one of college hoopdom’s toughest places to play. Unfortunately, Sparty led at home for the final 5:58, though U of L never quit.
But there’s also work to be done.
U of L had only 7 assists on 26 made FGs. Sparty won the battle on the glass, 40-30.
* * * * *
Yet again, Rick Pitino did not address the press after the game.
Yet again, I repeat: Rick Pitino is being paid $5 million/ year. Among his contractual duties for that inarguably obscene salary is that he keep the fans paying that freight informed.
Not meeting the press is NOT ACCEPTABLE.
* * * * *
The Cards, if not their fans who are paying big $$$ for the privilege of viewing such lollypop affairs, get to enjoy six stocking stuffers in a row, before the 12/26 visit to Lexington, where we’ll find out if the Cards learn any lessons playing a half dozen lesser thans in a row.
Grand Canyon, Eastern Michigan, Kennesaw State, WKU, UMKC and Utah Valley, come on down and collect your Yummy! appearance checks.
— Seedy K