End in sight for Louisville in the American Athletic Conference

Goodbye American Athletic Conference.

A few more baseball and softball games, followed by conference tournaments, and the University of Louisville will be leaving you. Bigger and better things ahead — off to the Atlantic Coast Conference,  a certified member of the Big Five club, with big name foes, much broader exposure and recognition, and multimillion-dollar pay days.

UofL is leaving with mostly fond memories of our association, the long-time rivalries with Cincinnati and Memphis, the series with UConn and South Florida, the decisive football game with Central Florida, that unbelievable basketball game at Southern Methodist. Rutgers, of course, is off to the Big Ten, fumbling and bumbling on its way out the door and won’t be missed at all.AAC

UofL has so much in common with you, pursuing national respect in an often cynical and class-structured universe. The challenges of gaining acceptance are huge and never-ending. There are opportunities to break through the clutter, as UConn basketball winning the national championship, for example, and UCF’s BCS Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor. Treasure those moments.

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Louisville defense clamps down on Rutgers

Challenge everything.

All business on defense, the University of Louisville shutting down Rutgers in all parts of the game, allowing no unchallenged passes, shots or rebounds, exhausting the shellshocked Scarlet Knights.

Total domination, 92-31.

Everybody’s on the same page now. Constant pressure on the ball, relentless, flawless. For the second game in a row, UConn last week, Rutgers on Thursday, the opposition depleted of any semblance of offensive efficiency.

Not new for a Rick Pitino team, but having recently been passionately embraced by this team, the stepped-up defensive complexity and intensity have arrived just in time, making Louisville a much different team.

Change is occurring not only on defense but on offense with this Louisville team.

Imagine Russ Smith going almost an entire half without taking a shot, passing up shot after shot, looking for assist after assist. It would happen for the second game in a row, but Russ would still wind up with 16 points. Thirteen assists against UConn, five that seemed like a lot more against Rutgers and would have been if his teammates weren’t missing open shots.

How does an opposing defense prepare for a Russ Smith who isn’t jacking up shots every other trip down court? Prepare for the new one at one’s peril, because the old Russ is never far away. He will, indeed, do whatever is necessary to help his team win.

Chris Jones, returning home again, this time more focused than ever, leading all scorers with 18 points, including three-of-four threes. Jones had four assists, five rebounds, as well. But it was those six steals by Jones a real indicator of how much he has bought into Pitino’s defensive mandate.

Pitino knows what he wants, what it takes, and what he will get this time of the season, with players totally committed to his system. Already fun again.

Smaller lineup big for Louisville against SMU

Rick Pitino had to try a new approach, running out of patience with the lack of productivity from the center spot, going with a smaller lineup, actually emphasizing offense for a change.

Introducing a three-guard starting lineup for the first time this season, featuring Luke Hancock, Russ Smith and Chris Smith on the perimeter. Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear underneath.

More quickness, combined with a newfound intensity on defense and ferocity in pursuing loose balls, and less of Stephan Van Treese and Mangok Mathiang, resulting in a 71-63 win over Southern Methodist University before 21,237 fans at the KFC Yum! Center.

Twenty deflections, 10 steals to go with all those defensive stops during a tense six minutes at the end of the game. Ten three-pointers against a committed, aggressive SMU defense equally impressive.

Harrell and Smith turning in 38 minutes, with Montrezl turning in one of his more impressive performances, 13 rebounds, four blocks, and 12 points. Russ savoring the extra time as well, with six assists, four steals and 23 points.

Had he not committed two fouls and jammed a finger with nine minutes to go in the first half, Luke Hancock may have been right there with them in playing time.  He would score 17 points with the finger bandaged in the second half, winding up with a total of 23 as well.

If Pitino can ever get Harrell into a proper offensive stance, as he noted after the game, that seven-foot-plus horizontal reach of his could make the smaller lineup even more effective. That would go well with all those rim-rattlers.

The sooner the better because SMU may be tough to handle at Dallas in March.

Louisville in waiting

An open date, a week without football, gives us time to think about where the University of Louisville is now, a member of the American Athletic Conference for nine more months.

Having to wait to officially join the Atlantic Coast Conference on July 1, 2014.

The wait providing learning experiences in humility, patience and patience, biding our time, coexisting and mixing it up with our friends from Cincinnati, Memphis and UConn, among others. Programs that can only dream for now, wanting to be where UofL will be next year.

The goal is within sight for UofL, but we are, at least for now, still where they are. They are our equals, humble and hungry, yearning for respect. We should remember that as conference play resumes next week in football and a couple of months from now in basketball.

Ambition is a powerful incentive, one that has served the University of Louisville well. Our old rivals will have plenty of motivation against UofL as the program prepares to bid farewell and move on. Sweet sorrow is not what they have in mind.

Remember where we come from. We’re still there for a while longer.

Awkward year for Louisville in American Athletic Conference

Nine months in the American Athletic Conference could be a little awkward for the University of Louisville. An entire academic year in transition, facing an array of  opponents with  varied conference histories.

Eight out of 10 schools in the AAC are probably around indefinitely, whether all of them want to be there or not, compelled to making the new alliance work, including Cincinnati, UConn and South Florida from the former Big East who were passed over during the conference realignment shakeup.American-Athletic-Conference-Logo

Two new conference partners in Central Florida and Southern Methodist. A couple of teams, Memphis and Houston, familiar faces from previous conferences.  Two members, Louisville and Rutgers, headed for the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big Ten, respectively. Then there’s Temple, which rejoined the Big East after getting ejected only to find itself in another one two years later.

An unlikely alliance, schools thrown together through a variety of circumstances, some hoping the shakeup continues, others yearning for stability, and two knowing they have arrived, counting the days but wanting to be successful in their current conference home.

With UofL coming off of a successful year in all sports, a major challenge for each of the coaches may be maintaining high levels of intensity. Staying “humble and hungry,” as Tom Jurich puts it, is easy to say, harder to do over prolonged periods of time.

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