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.

Asia Durr for 28, Louisville women rip North Carolina

Louisville Coach Jeff Walz sends a message to officials after Myisha Hines-Allen was pulled to the floor on a rebound in the second quarter. A technical foul was assessed to a North Carolina player. 

Always nice when the University of Louisville women’s basketball team coasts to a win over an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent.  Especially when the opponent is North Carolina and the score is 87-57.

The UofL women would start slow and finish going away before a crowd of 9,739 fans at the KFC Yum! Center on Sunday.  A “Pink Out” day for cancer awareness, with UofL wearing pink, UNC that Carolina blue, posing a challenge for at least one color blind observer.

Hines-Allen seems to be over whatever was slowing her down a few games ago.

The Cardinals getting some extra motivation in the second quarter when Myisha Hines-Allen was wrestled to the floor by UNC’s Alyssa Okoene. Both players getting up with fire in their eyes, their teammates restraining them. Technical foul called on Okoene, with the Cardinals scoring six quick points to claim a 34-21 lead at the intermission.

Another dominating performance by Asia Durr, scoring 10 points in the first half, a flurry of eight straight points in the third quarter, and a total of 28 points for the game. She keeps gaining confidence, improving her shot selection, and making it look so easy in some games.

Coach Jeff Walz seemed to most pleased with Durr’s four assists. “She’s improving other parts of her game,” he said. “She’s even more of a threat when she can find open teammates.”

Hines-Allen seems to be over whatever was slowing her down a few games ago, turning in another double-double with 19 points and 12 rebounds. That’s her 12th double-double this season and the 24th in her three-year career at Louisville.

Only two more games remaining in the regular season, senior night at home against Virginia on Thursday, and a road game at Wake Forest next Sunday. The Cardinals are 23-6 overall and tied for fourth with N.C. State in the ACC with identical 10-4 conference records. N.C. State has the advantage if a tiebreaker is needed, virtue of a win over UofL.

Louisville baseball on the road again to Omaha

Dan McDonnell doesn’t have to remind players of the annual aspirations or the ultimate objective for University of Louisville baseball.

They are, in this order: Getting back to Omaha for the College World Series and winning a national championship.

Dan McDonnell: “You have to believe before you can achieve.”

Reminders abound throughout baseball complex. The wall behind his desk is a super magnified photo of Ameritrade Stadium. The same one adorns the wall of the team meeting room.  The outfield walls in Jim Patterson Stadium feature giant billboards commemorating three past trips to Omaha.

A banner on the front entrance to the stadium declares that the road to Omaha goes through Louisville. The coaches, the players and the fans share the same expectation of getting back to Omaha, of someday getting out of Omaha with the biggest trophy of them all.

The coach went to the College World Series as a college player at The Citadel in 1990.  He expects it, always anticipates returning.

“You got to believe it before you can achieve it,” McDonnell said. “I felt like this year I didn’t have to say it as much, which is good.  It’s understood.  It’s why the kids are here.  It’s what the fans expect here and I’m really proud of that.  That’s a neat place to be – a program where the expectations are to go to Omaha and win a national championship.”

The season begins for the Cardinals this weekend in Clearwater, Fla., with a Friday game at 3 p.m. against Alabama State, a Saturday game at 6 p.m. against Maryland, and a Sunday 1 p.m. game against Ball State. No television but the games will be broadcast on 93.9 The Ville.

The opening home game is against Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday at 3 p.m., followed by a three-game weekend series against Nebraska-Omaha.

Ryan McMahon off the bench, carries Louisville past Syracuse in overtime

Ryan McMahon the guy who usually leads the cheers on the bench was leading the University of Louisville on the court at Syracuse in overtime on Big Monday. (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

One of the most unpredictable games ever, no one ever really in command or playing under control, last one with the basketball wins … unless someone turns the ball over or dribbles it out of bounds.

Keystone cops near the end of regulation, balls bouncing off of heads, toes, butts and elbows. Or maybe a pinball game, balls ricocheting off the flappers, winding up with the weirdest angles, sometimes even in the basket.

The comedy on the court upstaged only by Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim roaming around with his mouth wide open, unable to believe any call could go against his Syracuse team. University of Louisville Coach Rick Pitino trying hard to stifle a smile or a smirk (who knows?) with the game on the line in the closing seconds of regulation. 

Anything seemed possible but winning the least likely after Donovan Mitchell fouled out at the 1:18 mark, with UofL clinging to a fragile five-point lead. No surprise Syracuse coming back to tie it up after one of those Keystone cop plays on a three-pointer by John Gillon. Deng Adel missing the front end of two bonus situations.  This one was destined for overtime.

With Mitchell out, Adel missing everything and Snider all but exhausted, the question was where UofL’s points were going to come from in this overtime.

Wait, is that Ryan McMahon out there? Was that Ryan McMahon with that 3-point jumper? Was that Ryan McMahon with an offensive rebound, cleaning up the garbage?

Syracuse fans had to be wondering, thinking, “Who is this guy?” They hadn’t seen him the entire game.

Yes, indeed, it was, Pitino confirming it. “Ryan never met a shot he didn’t like,” said the coach. “He has nerves of steel.”

Entirely appropriate that Ryan McMahon would be the UofL player at the line with one second on the clock, all but sealing the 76-72 win by swishing two of two free throws. Should have been over but that was only assured in the final split second when a Syracuse player stepped out of bounds. 

Louisville had outlasted Syracuse, but this time Ryan McMahon, usually leading cheers on the bench, was leading the charge on the floor when the final horn sounded.

The man:

Kylee Shook gets message, UofL women skate past Boston College

Apparently when Jeff Walz sends a message to a University of Louisville player, he wants to make sure the individual has time to consider the desired result. Just ask Kylee Shook who was benched quickly in the second half against Virginia Tech on Thursday.

Kylee Shook attacks the basket for two of her game-leading 14 points (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

So surprised when she had a wide open path to the basket, Kylee did an awkward ball fake, was called for traveling, and summoned to the bench. Done for the night, having to think about it the rest of the night and over the next three days.

Imagine her relief, then, when Walz tapped Shook as the starting forward the following Sunday. The coach appealing to her competitive edge, hoping she would react in a positive way, needing her to be a leader.

Shook would do just that, the young 6-foot-4 freshman responding with one of the best games in her career in a 68-43 win over Boston College before 9,306 fans at the KFC Yum! Center. She would make six of 10 field goal attempts, including two of three 3-point shots, to lead all scorers with 14 points while pulling down five rebounds. 

No mishaps in this one, either, Shook with zero turnovers in 20 minutes of playing time. 

Before one gets carried away, however, it should be noted that Shook may have gotten the starting opportunity because Asia Durr, UofL’s leading scorer, was the one on the bench in this game.

All game long, with no explanation except for a “coach’s decision.” Nobody close to the team knowing anything, saying nothing, not even her. As Durr was leaving the floor, an elderly woman called out to her, “Hey, Asia, what did you do?”

“It’s okay,” replied Asia. “I’ll be back next game.”

Also of note, Mariya Moore did not return for the second half after making three turnovers and missing all six of her field goal attempts in the first 20 minutes.

More messaging? Or was it because she wasn’t needed? Myisha Hines-Allen, who had 10 points and 13 rebounds, saw only eight minutes in the second half. Regardless, they will have all week to think about it, UofL not playing until next Sunday when North Carolina arrives for a Noon tipoff. 

A long week ahead, plenty of time to let any object lessons sink in.