Louisville is dancing again, with Richard Pitino in opening act

The ghost of Rick Pitino will hang over University of Louisville in the opening game of the 2019 NCAA tournament.

By Ed Peak

The NCAA just could help itself, matching the University of Louisville against Rick Pitino’s son. Just too obvious, the irony. But the Cardinals are back.

That eruption that shook the area at 6:07 Sunday evening was UofL fans celebrating another bid to the NCAA basketball Tournament. Good to be back in the club, enjoy it while it lasts.

After not being in the tournament two of the last three years the Cardinals (20-13) are a No. 7 seed in the East Regional. The Cardinals will play 10th seeded Minnesota (21-13) in Des Moines, Thursday at 12:15 p.m. It will be the first game in the tournament and will have the nation’s attention until at least 12:40.

The Gophers, of course, are coached by Richard Pitino, son of former Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Former Cardinal big man Matz Stockman plays for the Golden Gophers. “Rick Pitino will fly back from Greece to be at practice to help,” cracked ESPN analyst Seth Greenburg.

“It’s the elephant in the room,”said Chris Mack at his press conference. “I’ve coached a few guys that played for Rick. Can’t control what people are going to talk about, write about or report on. You can only beat a horse for so long.”

The Big Ten placed eight teams in the tournament. The Atlantic Coast Conference has seven but three of them are No. 1 seeds — Duke, Virginia and North Carolina — along with Gonzaga. I didn’t believe there was anyway the ACC would have three No. 1 seeds. Not that they didn’t deserve it, I just didn’t think the committee would have the guts.

I’m going with Duke to win all the marbles. Despite a short bench, the Blue Demons have the best player Zion Williamson, the best coach in Mike Krzyewski and a supporting cast of former Macdonald’s All-Americans.

Don’t doubt that Louisville could make it interesting, however, having dominated three of the top four seeds for more than a few minutes this season. Defeating North Carolina in one game, and managing nice leads before folding against Duke and Virginia. 

Not possible, no way, no how, but Louisville throttles North Carolina

Cindy Rice Shelton photo

Never. Be real.

The last thing anyone expected, especially among longtime diehard University of Louisville basketball fans. Go ahead and pencil in another L, no way to avoid getting mopped off the floor at Chapel Hill. A certain North Carolina runaway.

No rush switching on the TV, no hurry to see a blowout, tuning in less than a minute to tipoff. Afraid to watch, knowing no lead is safe, expecting the worst. No chance in hell. Bring it on, getting used to the bad news.

Except that the worst wasn’t to be. Not this day.

Two hours after comparing this group to a friend at Kroger with a bunch of YMCA basketball junkies, telling him not to get his hopes up. This Louisville team had wrapped up an 83-62 win over North Carolina before 21,000-plus fans on their home court, the 21-point loss the largest ever for UNC under Coach Roy Williams.

Two hours after comparing this group to a friend at Kroger with a bunch of YMCA basketball junkies, telling him not to get his hopes up.

Exactly what UofL fans needed, those expecting a long, long season, losing faith, having resigned themselves to the worst. A win at the least expected moment, over one of college basketball’s blue bloods, a giant booster shot three games into the heart of the ACC schedule.

Think maybe Coach Chris Mack’s message about keeping players in front of them and out of the lane finally reached its audience? One kept expecting that perpetual flurry of UNC fast break layups, alley oops and back door slams. But they never came. Rarely has a North Carolina team thrown up so many bricks.

Jordan Nwora bringing his game face, with a different look, ready to rumble, no hint of ambivalence. Steven Enoch tired of riding the bench, bringing a different game, one that some had given up ever seeing, probably  his best ever. Dwayne Sutton again bringing that warrior mentality, fearless and aggressive.

The three of them sharing team-high scoring honors with 17 points apiece. Sutton with an amazing seven assists, Christen Cunningham with five assists. Only five turnovers during the game, compared to 14 for North Carolina. Out-rebounding the Tar Heels, 40-31. An unlikely 11 rebounds from Enoch, 10 rebounds for Sutton — first time double-doubles for each.

The most impressive performance by a Louisville basketball team in quite a while, coming on the heels of an ugly loss to Pittsburgh. The players maybe ready to listen. Mack with the same old message, keep the ball in front of you, keep them out of the lane. “When you do that, they will have a tough time scoring against you,” said Mack.

Keep that in mind, guys, and there could well be many more good times ahead this season.

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Louisville seems content to hang around against Kentucky

A game Dwayne Sutton wants to forget, Louisville’s third leading scorer managing only two points for the day (Cindy Rice Shelton photos).

May be a while before University of Louisville basketball plays another Kentucky team so lacking in talent as was so evident on Saturday. But that’s irrelevant because UofL never posed a serious threat to the Wildcats.

Chris Mack gave his team a chance against Kentucky but was outmanned in his first game in the rivalry (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Choose a reason — lack of focus, no consistency, little confidence, an absence of leadership, no visible will to win — any of these qualities were in evidence in a 71-58 loss to Kentucky. No perceived benefit either from the boisterous UofL diehards in the crowd of 20,882 at the KFC Yum! Center on Saturday.

A UofL team able to connect on only  five of 20 three-point field goal attempts. Not much better on close-up attempts, unable to finish, blowing uncontested shots at times. Seemingly content to just hang around, spotting UK 10-point-plus leads,  lacking the ability to hit two or three shots in a row.

The crowd of 20,882 was the largest at the KFC Yum! Center this season.

Credit Coach Chris Mack for keeping his team as close as it was, avoiding a second straight blowout to Kentucky. The offensive schemes were good, the 1-3-1 zone offense could have been effective. But not without booster shots of mental toughness and consistent focus.

If there was a bright spot, it was the play of Christen Cunningham, who almost singlehandedly kept UofL within striking distance in the first half. The 6-foot-2 graduate transfer from Samford University had three of Louisville’s five 3-point shots and a team-leading 20 points.

Jordan Nwora, the team’s leading scorer, accumulated 17 points but teammates Dwayne Sutton and Darius Perry managed only seven points between them. Sutton never took a shot during the first 20 minutes. Ryan McMahon couldn’t possibly get open, winding with two free throws.

Not a blowout at least, but not all that encouraging. Not with UofL hosting Miami next Sunday in the first game of a grueling ACC schedule. 

An early wakeup call, a reminder for Louisville fans to keep expectations in check for the rest of the season. Chris Mack’s work has only just begun.

Slideshow courtesy of Cindy Rice Shelton.

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Chris Mack breathing life back into Louisville basketball

Cindy Rice Shelton photo

Turn that corner. 

Biggest win of Coach Chris Mack’s tenure at the University of Louisville, his team emerging from a bruising slugfest with Michigan State. Too soon to declare that UofL is back from the wilderness, but never too early to celebrate a signature victory.

One of those cliche wins for a young team, one of those games this first year coach’s team wasn’t expected to survive. A night when Louisville could have folded often in regulation or overtime, but hanging on for a an 82-78 win over the nation’s ninth-ranked team.

A special night, a special win for the Cardinals in front of a screaming crowd of 15,477 rabid partisans at the KFC Yum! Center. Everyone knowing this one was special, possibly the lynchpin for a return to the good times for Louisville basketball.

All of UofL’s last seven points coming at the free throw line, four of them from Ryan McMahon, two from Chris Cunningham, and the final one from Jordan Nwora, with the final free throw, giving the Cardinals’ their final margin.

Ryan McMahon with a career high 24 points, including four free throws in overtime. (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

McMahon admitting after the game he was dreading Murphy’s Law, fearing that if something bad could happen, it was going to happen. “The difference may have been the little things, the kind of things we sometimes take for granted,” he said afterwards.

McMahon mentioned Dwayne Sutton as a difference maker, saying Sutton was telling his teammates on the sideline not to let up, not to let a win slip out of their grasp. “He told us we can’t let this happen again,” he said.

McMahon among numerous players having the game of their careers. The junior guard leading all scorers with 24 points, including four of eight field goal attempts, all of them 3-pointers, and 12 or 13 free throw attempts.Jordan Nwora with 14 points, including two 3-pointers, six of nine free throw attempts. Dwayne Sutton and Chris Cunningham with 13 points each.

Responding to Chris Mack’s with that hand over his heart, the Cardinals wanting this one badly. Needing this win, overcoming any of their own doubts, doing what it takes, not being denied, making it happen.

Breathing life back into Louisville basketball, a dose of adrenalin into the UofL faithful. A major corner indeed.

Fewer distractions the better in UofL basketball locker room this season

Not long after Tim Sullivan tweeted about a University of Louisville basketball player not being around, Coach Chris Mack has made the locker room off limits to the media after games. A good move, as far as the Observer is concerned, removing some unnecessary distractions. 

Tim Sullivan and friends lose media access to Louisville basketball locker room (Charlie Springer photo).

Sullivan, a Courier Journal sports columnist, was doing his thing following Chris Mack’s first game as UofL’s head coach — the beginning of what could be an eventful career. Never one to let negative news go to waste, Sullivan was interested in asking V. J. King about some FBI recruiting notes. King wasn’t around, having departed before the media arrived.

Nothing really wrong with asking questions, wanting a quote, it’s what Sullivan does. He thrives on being a cynic, putting people on the defensive, exposing alleged transgressions, pointing out shortcomings, bringing darkness to light. A sports columnist or a frustrated evangelist, take your pick.

To place the blame on Sullivan is probably not fair but he wouldn’t hesitate to point a finger or to cast doubt on other people if he himself wasn’t the most obvious suspect. Always the somber one, a walking thesaurus of doom and gloom.

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Not that it has received any credit but Louisville has for years been one of the few remaining basketball programs allowing media into the locker room. Mack never allowed the media into the locker room when he was at Xavier, never even considered it. Despite misgivings, he tried it for one game in UofL’s opener, only to reverse the policy in the next game.

The sports media is complaining about lack of access, of course. The least of their concerns is a new coach implementing a new system with a new group of players. That’s a group of players facing the toughest schedule in the program’s history. With players in a program that is more likely than not to face NCAA scrutiny in the near future for the screwups of the previous bosses.

There is, in fact, the possibility that this young team is facing a seven-game stretch during which wins will be hard to come by. If the worst were to occur, the last thing a coach need for pundits to be poking around in the locker room after a series of losses. Or following a series of upset wins for that matter.

Mack’s job will be further complicated if and when the NCAA follows up on the FBI’s NCAA accusations. Still another media circus seems inevitable. He has the responsibility of protecting players as much as possible from the gloom emanating from allegations of previous recruiting violations. 

The media will, of course, have plenty to say about the perceived slight. There’s no one around to temper them, to reason with them or to muzzle them for that matter. Complaining attracts readers and viewers, stimulates bitching and arguments, provides fodder for talk shows and such, a never ending cycle. Freedom of the press, yes, but don’t ever expect the media to self-impose any limits.

While one can understand the media’s desire to get unfettered access to the players, there’s an equally strong case to be made for Chris Mack wanting to protect his players. Here’s a vote for his taking charge of the situation, doing what he thinks is in the best long-term interest of his team. 

A very long season is looming for Louisville basketball. The fewer distractions in the locker room the better.