Shades of Jeff Ruland, Moritz Wagner dominates Louisville

Someone around here once said if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. Possibly true but there seemed to be little difference from beginning to the bitter end this year.

One long basketball season for the University of Louisville, a few peaks but too many valleys. A failure to maintain focus on defense, accompanied by the lack of any sustainable offensive threat. proving fatal in the end in games that counted the most.

So many times UofL was unable to finish games, to rise to the challenge, even when it was obvious what the opposition was going to do.

The Cardinals caving again on Sunday, giving up still another nice lead in the second half, this time to Michigan 73-69. The loss sending the Louisville home after the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Jeff Ruland had 30 points and 21 rebounds for Iona against the 1980 champs.

Never has the pick and roll looked so easy as it did for Michigan’s Moritz Wagner in a 26-point performance. Probably the most dominating performance by a big man against Louisville in three decades.

The last time was when Iona’s Jeff Ruland scored 30 points in a 77-60 win over the eventual national champs in 1980. Iona, which was coached by the late Jim Valvano, had a 35th year reunion a couple of years ago to celebrate that win. 

One of the most maddening things about this team was the inability of Louisville’s big guys to hit the close-in shots or cash in on the gimme’s, consistently missing wide open, uncontested dunks all season long. Followup tip-ins always a bonus, coming as a complete surprise all too often.

Reminiscent of the first couple of seasons after Rick Pitino arrived in Louisville.  Lack of confidence, not much scoring from the bench, a poor shooting team, shaky from the field and on the free throw line, and unable to defend the basket. 

When the deterioration sat in in the second half, it was quickly apparent there was not going to be a happy ending. Not surprisingly for close followers of this Louisville team. 

Shots not falling but Mitchell focused, Louisville moves to next round

A little shaky getting out of the gate, understandable with so few members of the University of Louisville basketball team having NCAA tournament experience. Good to get those first few minutes out of the way, get down to business.

Not the best of starts for Donovan Mitchell, his first ever appearance in the tourney, missing all of his first eight field goal attempts in the first half.  Actually a good day for Mitchell, not allowing his lack of scoring to affect the rest of his game. He would wind up with nine points, 10 rebounds, fives assists and three steals.

Rick Pitino happy for Donovan Mitchell’s all around game (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

“I was very impressed with Donovan Mitchell,” said Coach Rick Pitino afterwards. “I’ve been trying to get him to focus on other things other than scoring. If it’s not your night because you’re the main target to do other things … To me, he’s come a long way.”

Equally encouraging was the fact that his teammates picked up the slack in UofL’s 78-63 win over Jacksonville State in the tournament’s opening round. Playing aggressively, dominating the backboard 36-23, making 11 of 14 free throw attempts, and hitting 48.4% of their field goal attempts, including a third of their 3-point attempts.

Fifth-year senior Mangok Mathiang looking very comfortable around the basket lately, connecting on eight of his 13 field goal attempts, and leading his team in scoring with 18 points. Made both of his free throw attempts as well. Hopefully, he’s finally getting it in the twilight of his college career, maybe just the right time for UofL.

“Coach has made a big point of trying to go play inside-out,” said Mathiang. “And it’s been working out pretty well for me. A lot of guys that are not expecting me to make a move in the post and going up and scoring. I mean, it’s working out pretty well for me and for my teammates because I’m kicking that out as well.”

Deng Adel may have taken his play to another level, becoming one of his team’s most consistent players, reliable on both offense and defense. Adel making six of seven field goal attempts, including both of his 3-point attempts, for 16 points. Two of two free throw attempts.

A collective sigh of relief for free throw concerns, with the Cardinals making 11 of their 14 free throw attempts. Quentin Snider made one of two attempts, but Anas Mahmoud missed both of his.

Come on, Anas. Every shot matters this time of the season. Especially with a rematch Sunday of the schools that competed for the national championship in 2013.

Pitino believes it can happen, but has to convince his team

Rick Pitino has his hands full, getting his team to buy into his expectations.

Admit it. More than a little surprised that the University of Louisville basketball team earned a No. 2 seed in the 2017 NCAA basketball tournament. Right?

Three losses in the last five games doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, watching UofL give up big leads in a couple of those games. The Cardinals could beat any team at the KFC Yum! Center but the outcomes anywhere else are uncertain, especially with this team.

Pleased about the good seed nevertheless. Optimistic, knowing Rick Pitino is the best motivator of young men among the 351 basketball coaches in Division I basketball.  One could give Pitino a few practice sessions with some elderly church ladies from the basement kitchen and he would make them competitive.

Some of the Pitino’s teams have had no business going as far they did in NCAA tournaments. His Providence team in the late eighties lost seven games but made it to the final weekend. His 2011-12 UofL team lost nine games before making it to a Final Four.

The real challenge this season is whether he can get into the minds of players like Mangok Mathiang, Ray Spalding, Anas Mahmoud and Jaylen Johnson. Big guys, long arms, space hogs. Predictably inconsistent, often out of control and spotty at best.

Can he persuade them that they can consistently play defense, make decent passes, catch passes, make layups and free throws? If he were to convince them, could they grasp all the coaching and practice instruction and raise their collective play to new levels of efficiency for as long as three weeks?

Could Donovan Mitchell fall out of love with all the jump shots and the 3-point attempts, keep driving to the basket, and quit disappearing when he misses a few shots? Could Quentin Snider stay out of foul trouble in the first half, not run out of energy, and hit the front end of one-and-one free throw situations?

The UofL coach has said repeatedly that he likes this team, believes this team plays with a lot of energy and incredible heart. If he believed they could somehow win the Atlantic Coast Conference, as he said he did, then he still thinks they’re capable of even bigger things.

Seems like a tall order in many respects but Pitino has done more with much less talent, getting players to buy into his vision for them, inspiring them to sometimes achieve the unachievable. 

Pitino is getting into their minds right now, confirming that they are as good or better than their No. 2 seeding, raising his expectations along with theirs. It’s what Pitino does, and it works just often enough to not be surprised when it happens.

Pitino worries about ‘mental’ aspects as Louisville bows out of ACC tourney


The college basketball season starts to get old when one’s team has lost three out of its last five games. Reeling as the March Madness nears, looking more and more like a premature exit is possible.

But there was Coach Rick Pitino saying he believed the University of Louisville could have won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament this time around. “I’m heartbroken we lost today,” he said after UofL’s 81-77 loss to Duke in a quarterfinal game.

“I really felt like we could win this weekend,” he said. “We could have won by 10 or 15 tonight if we had hit our free throws and done the little things. This team gives a lot of effort, has great heart but mentally they’re just not what they need to be.”

Pitino cited UofL’s final offensive play as an example, with players out of position on a play that his team runs every day in practice. Maybe he’s just being kind when he refers to the “mental” aspects of the game.

One of Deng Adel’s better games with 21 points (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Another horrid day at the free throw line with the Cardinals making only 15 of 26 attempts, many of them on the front end of one-and-one situations. The coach flinches at suggestions that his team doesn’t practice free throw shooting enough.

“We practice on free throws more than anyone,” he said. “We try not to talk about them too much because it can become a psychological thing.”

Another frustrating game for Donovan Mitchell, a first-team ACC player, who never seemed to get started. He managed three points in the first half and wound up with only eight for the game.

If there was a bright spot, it was the play of Deng Adel, showing a newfound ability to get through traffic to the basket. He would make seven of 14 field goal attempts, including two of six from behind the 3-point line, for a team-leading 21 points. Notably, he would also make five of six free-throws.

UofL has been down before heading into NCAA tournament play, only to turn things around, often exceeding expectations. But Rick Pitino seems to be admitting he has some extra concerns about this year’s team. He may be running out of time getting the answers he seeks.

Villanova’s Jay Wright would think twice about going back to the White House

Some preconceived notions from some odd sources are causing division in America.

The anti-Donald Trump fervor so obvious in the mainstream media may also be present in the sports media and even among some coaches, if a recent interview of Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright by Maggie Gray of Sports Illustrated is any indication.

For some obscure reason, Gray feels compelled to ask Wright if would take his team back to the White House again if Villanova were to repeat as national champions in the NCAA tournament this year (click on video below).

Straight out of left field, she leads off the interview with a comment about some “divisive election” results and controversy on “college campuses where we’re seeing a lot of people speaking out about Donald Trump. What’s the role of a college basketball coach with all this going on? What kind of discussions are you having with your team?”

Wait. What? Was that a serious question? From an objective interviewer? A neutral observer would have to immediately conclude the reporter was dead set on driving a political agenda.

Amateur hour in full effect.

Even more disturbing that Jay Wright takes the question seriously, saying he’s had a lot of conversations with his players. “We did go to the White House to meet President Obama who was, for many reasons, just a great role model.” 

“How are your kids feeling about it (Trump’s election)?” she asks, again, almost with a straight face.  

To which Wright responds, “I think scared. I think a lot of them are very concerned about the direction of the country. African American kids are very concerned about their own culture, their own people.

“Someone asked me, ‘If you won it (again), would you go to the White House?’ It’s something we would have have a long talk about as a team. I would suggest that out of respect for the tradition of our country and the office of the President that we should go.”

After some posturing, Wright finally concludes that deciding whether his players should go to the White House would be a good problem to have, meaning that Villanova would have won second national championship.

What’s really troubling, however, is that some people who are supposed to be objective, who should respect the individual serving as President to tackle America’s enormous problems, and who should value differing opinions are so closed-minded.

Maggie May needs to stick to sports, Jay Wright to basketball.