Russ Smith when it counts, Louisville trims Cincinnati

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Russ Smith the one who will have to take the shot, bringing the ball up court with 11.6 seconds on the clock. Whoops. The Cincinnati clock operator a little quick tapping that starting switch. Going to have to do that all over again.

Not an impressive performance overall for Russ, plagued with foul problems much of the time, struggling to be relevant against an aggressive Cincinnati defense, losing that magic touch in traffic beneath the basket, not the same player. Some teams, especially in big games, seeming to do that, relegating him to a non-factor.

But Russ will get one more chance to bring the ball down court, taking his time for once, restraining himself, not wanting to rush or be a hero this time, giving up the ball to Terry Rozier, moving without the ball, expecting Rozier to shoot. Rozier goes up for the shot, but gives it back to Russ 10 feet from the basket. A high loft of a shot, hanging in the air forever, turning out to be a perfect arc, the ball slipping through the bottom of the net.

Two seconds. Game over. He either gets the credit or the blame, and he was destined to take that final shot. This UofL team will go the way he goes, and the outcome of anything he does will always be unpredictable. His ups and downs this game adding to the annals of Russ Smith lore.

An appropriate end  to a college basketball rivalry that began 92 years ago, the University of Louisville over Cincinnati at the horn, 58-57.

While Russ will be remembered for the winning shot, Montrezl Harrell will be the player who made a happy ending possible. Harrell continues to surprise with a portfolio of abilities that continue to expand. He embraces his role as the big man on Louisville’s front line, thrives on it, eats it up, wanting to be in the middle of the action.

Making his team a contender, looking forward to the big games, giving up his body for Louisville basketball, contributing 21 points and 10 rebounds. But Montrezl really needs to focus on his foibles  at the free throw line, shooting 47%, managing only five of 12 tries against Cincinnati.

Good to finally get that so-called “signature win” against a ranked opponent for the first time in five tries this season. That story line was getting a little old and insulting to Louisville’s basketball tradition.

Louisville basketball outlook a little wobbly

Rick-PItino

Ten months ago, his basketball team cutting down the NCAA tournament championship nets in Atlanta. Rick Pitino back in the spotlight, one day the Georgia Dome, a few weeks later entering the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield.

At the top of his game, only coach to ever win national championships at two different schools, Pitino was back where belonged, among the elite in his profession. Writing still another book, always ready with advice to anyone who will listen, sharing his unique insights on success.

Entering the 2013 season riding the crest of a 16-game win streak, his University of Louisville basketball team ranked among the top three teams in the nation in numerous pre-season polls. His team would extend the streak to 21 games, winning the first five. The success formula working again, no doubt, the coach himself have alluded to a dynasty in the making.

Flash forward to Nov. 24 and the championship game at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic in Connecticut and a total breakdown against North Carolina in the second half. The Cardinals looking out of sorts, suddenly very ordinary, dominated on offense and defense.

Similar letdowns against old rivals Kentucky, Memphis and Cincinnati, having lost all four games against the few ranked teams on the schedule, the ones that mattered the most to the program and fans, losses that take any credibility away from a 17-4 won-lost record.

He sounded frustrated and discouraged during the press conference following the loss to Cincinnati, all but admitting incompetence at the center spot, bemoaning the decisions of key players at crucial points  in games, knowing the development process takes time, and that the season is already entering the stretch.

Pitino has been here before, been in worse situations, turning things around, doing the incredulous, getting less talented teams in Final Fours. He will exhaust every conceivable idea, every motivational tool at his disposal, to get the truck headed in the right direction.

That may be what Pitino does best, in fact, and why no one is eliminating Louisville as a serious contender in March. His team has been humbled, but Pitino is hungry again.

Cronin beats his old boss again

Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick in a familiar place, at the free throw line where he swished 11 of 11, oblivious to all the distractions behind the basket, leading all scorers with 28 points (Click on photo to enlarge.)
Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick in a familiar place, at the free throw line where he swished 11 of 11, oblivious to all the throw-back distractions behind the basket (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Give Rick Pitino eight days to prepare for an opponent and he will shut down that team’s best player. Often the case, but nothing was normal in the University of Louisville basketball team’s 69-66 loss to Cincinnati.

Sean Kilpatrick, the conference player of the week three times already, dispelled that myth. He will be the man again this week after a silky smooth performance against UofL, unstoppable at times, leading all scorers with 28 points.

The long layoff a hindrance to the momentum UofL had achieved with three convincing wins. Managing only seven points in the first 11 minutes, when’s the last time that happened? The no bumping, no touching rules were supposed to eliminate those kind of games.

Mick Cronin with still another win over his mentor, his fourth over Pitino in the last six meetings. He will probably always look more like a student manager than a coach but he gets the job done against his old boss one more time. The Bearcats are 9-0 in conference play, Louisville is 6-2, and still must face Cincinnati and Memphis on the road in what’s looking like an uphill battle.

The lackluster post play not encouraging, Pitino acknowledging after the game that Mangok Mathiang has the experience level of a high school sophomore. The coach was too kind to discuss some the challenges continuing to hinder Stephan Van Treese’s development. Between them, Mathiang and Van Treese combining for one shot, zero points, nine rebounds, two blocks, and an assist. They don’t provide stats on lack of blocking out, thankfully for Van Treese.

  • Russ Smith, the leader in steals on a team leading the nation in steals, had only one steal but it wasn’t from lack of effort. Twice reaching in on Kilpatrick in the closing minutes, twice getting whistled for fouls against one of the better ball handlers and free throw shooters in the league.
  • Had to love the three straight ball fakes by Smith on that one sequence, however, in collecting two of his 16 points. Only Russ has the ability to do that.
  • Luke Hancock, trying too hard at times to get fouled at times, getting called more than once for plowing into defenders. Managing only five of 12 attempts, winding up with 16 points as well, while handing out six assists, most of them to Montrezl Harrell.
  • Harrell continuing to diversify around the basket, adding an arsenal of jumpers and hooks, leading his team with 18 points. He could have used some help on the boards, those six rebounds of his giving the front line only seven in the game. The Cards were out-rebounded 36-25 against another “quality” opponent.
  • Terry Rozier played 10 minutes less than he had averaged in the three previous wins, thanks to the availability of Chris Jones, but raising questions about chemistry, something Pitino wasn’t about to entertain immediately after the loss.

Doubtless some momentum was lost with the eight-day layoff but UofL won’t have to wait for long, hosting Central Florida on Saturday and traveling to Houston on Wednesday. But wait, there’s still another eight-day vacuum after the Texas trip, just what the Cardinals don’t need going in February.

Louisville basketball ready to go again

Seems like forever since the University of Louisville men’s team played a basketball game.

The last one was a week ago, an 86-47 win over South Florida in Tampa, marking four straight wins after a six-point loss to Memphis. Eight days is too long not to be challenged. Late January is time things are usually coming together for Rick Pitino teams.

Probably a result of the conference purgatory year, which also included the loss of Big East Big Monday games on ESPN. Louisville athletics will have finally been redeemed when the school enters the Atlantic Coast Conference next season. Maybe fans ought to enjoy the slow pace while it lasts?

Pitino said in his Wednesday press conference that Chris Jones will return to action Thursday against Cincinnati but not in a starting role. Probably a good thing with the way the team has been performing with Terry Rozier at point guard.

Seems to be a lot of redundancy having Jones and Russ Smith on the court at the same time. If Pitino agrees, Rozier is going to still have more than his share of playing time as the season enters the stretch in February.

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The UofL women’s team looked beaten and all but out Tuesday with 11 minutes remaining, trailing Rutgers 53-47.

Shoni Schimmel was contributing but she was the only one at that point. Teammates depending upon too much it seemed.

Rutgers resembling some of Vivian Stringer’s teams from the past, making every shot difficult for the Cardinals while hitting 51% of their shots. Looked very much like the UofL winning streak of 13 games was going to end.

This Louisville team was not going to concede, however. Not without a fight.

At the 10:27 mark, Sara Hammond would knock down a three-pointer from 25 feet out, following it up with a layup and a free throw. Bria Smith and Asia Taylor would follow up with their own layups and free throws. All of a sudden, UofL was in front 59-55.

Final score: Louisville 80, Rutgers 71.

Cincinnati not going away quietly

While many University of Louisville fans have been feeling sorry for Cincinnati for being left behind in the conference realignment shuffle, UC continues to be a serious threat in both basketball and football.

Just a couple of days ago, Whit Babcock, the UC athletic director since 2011, announced he was leaving Cincinnati for a similar position at Virginia Tech. This after hiring Tommy Tuberville as football coach and engineering plans for a multi-million renovation of Nippert Stadium. Apparently too many limitations for him at UC.

Located in a fertile recruiting state, it’s obviously going to take a while for Cincinnati to feel the negative impact of being left behind in the American Athletic Conference as UofL moves on to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.

Take basketball, for example. The Bearcats, who will be in Louisville Thursday, have won 12 straight games this season. Among those wins was a decision over Memphis at Memphis. Their 19-2 won-lost record has them ranked 13th in the Associated Press this week, right behind 12th-ranked UofL.

They are led by senior guard Sean Kilpatrick, who is averaging 19.1 points per game, and coached by Mick Cronin, a former Rick Pitino assistant at UofL, who has won three of his past five games against mentor.

UC will be big and physical as usual, hungry for another win, always highly motivated when competing again Louisville. While UofL fans were feeling sorry a soon-to-be former conference rival, Cincinnati has been getting better. Not going away soon enough.

The KFC Yum! Center crowd has yet to be pumped up this season. That has to change Thursday evening. The Bearcats are for real, here and now.