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.

Asia Durr propels Louisville women to new level

Just a couple of days ago, Coach Jeff Walz was indicating that Asia Durr was likely to miss the rest of the season, citing her slow recuperation from a groin operation this past summer.

“She just hasn’t had the success trying to come back that she was hoping for,” Walz said. “It’s really limited her ability to have any kind of explosion, any kind of foot speed. It’s really affected her as much physically as mentally.”

Asia Durr makes everybody better.
Asia Durr makes everybody better.

My, how things can change in a couple of days for young athletes.

Durr was one of the first players off the bench Thursday, looking like her old self, leading the University of Louisville women’s basketball team to an impressive 85-78 win over Michigan State. Played 23 minutes, including the crucial ones at the end, holding off the inevitable MSU rally.

Looking every bit like the Asia Durr regarded by many as the No. 1 recruit in her class, she brought with a new level of confidence to the UofL offense heretofore unseen this season. Connecting on five of 11 field goal attempts and five of seven free throws for 20 points. She was also dishing out a couple of assists and copping three steals.

Following the game, Walz had no explanation for the quick turnaround in Durr’s physical outlook, happily proclaiming, “Asia Durr makes us a different team.” Nothing like the team that was 1-4 arriving at East Lansing.

Her presence on the court setting a different tone, inspiring her teammates, making everybody look better, like the team UofL fans expected to see this season.  Courtnee Walton, becoming a scorer, hitting key shots down the stretch, 12 points for the night. Mariya Moore and Briahanna Jackson combining for five 3-pointers, scoring 20 and 13 points, respectively. Turning the Spartans over 27 times.

A different team with Asia Durr, indeed.

Louisville ahead of schedule, but Michigan State is better

Eerily similar to the back and forth between the Louisville and Michigan State basketball teams in the NCAA regional final last season, the Spartans prevailing again, this time 71-67 in Lansing.

Michigan State, remember, outlasted UofL 76-70 in overtime in March, denying the Cardinals what would have been a surprising return to the Final Four.

Rick Pitino
Rick Pitino

Making this team competitive was supposed to consume most of the season but UofL is ahead of schedule, already a force to be reckoned in early December. The Cardinals will get better, it’s inevitable, all Rick Piitno teams do as the season continues.

Pitino piecing together another team almost from scratch to take this year’s third-ranked MSU to the wire again. More testament to his Hall of Fame coaching abilities. Adding Damion Lee and Trey Lewis for scoring punch, squeezing some muscle and hustle from his assortment of awkward big guys, refusing to concede anything to anybody.

Count on freshmen like Donovan Mitchell to learn not to foul the other team’s leading free throw shooter in the final minute, UofL conceding six of six free throws to him in the final minute. Better to deny him the ball.

Expect Anas Mahmoud, if he’s still playing that late in the game, to stay in the face of three-point shooters like Bryan Forbes, he who was connecting on five of nine tries beyond the arc. Better still, watch for players like Deng Adel and Raymond Spalding to be there instead applying the defense. Where was Spalding in this one, playing only six minutes? The injured Adel was unavailable.

Lee and Lewis will never be bashful when it comes to shooting, thriving on their time in the national spotlight, collecting 23 and 21 points, respectively. Donovan Mitchell will inevitably contribute more than his latest production of six points — if his defense earns him more playing time. Same for Spalding but he, too, had best get with it on defense. Sooner the better.

The big guys, Chinanu Onuaku, Mangok Mathiang, Mahmoud, even Matz Stockman, well, at least one or two of them have to get better. They have already but there wasn’t much evidence in this game. Small steps forward for the guys in the big shoes could make a major difference.

This UofL team is already further along than anyone thought it would be, having significantly raised expectations. This early test against Michigan State provides a blueprint for more dramatic progress in the weeks and months ahead. A good team will only get better, Pitino will see to that.

Louisville and Michigan State set in ACC-Big 10 challenge

The University of Louisville basketball team will get a shot at Michigan State early during the 2015-16 season but this time should have a lot more firing power.

The Cardinals, remember, made only six shots during the final 25 minutes of the NCAA Regional this past season, losing 76-70 to the Spartans in overtime. Five of 15 shots in the second half, one of seven in overtime.

Rick Pitino will be returning with some shooters this time around, having picked up Trey Lewis with a 16.3 scoring average from Cleveland State and Damion Lee with a 16.5 scoring clip from Drexel. Expect freshman Donovan Mitchell, from New Hampshire, to become an immediate scoring threat as well.

Hopefully Pitino will also have a deeper bench, developing it sooner, with more playing time for everybody, something that never happened last season.

The UofL-Michigan State game is part of the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. The schedule:

Monday, Nov. 30
• Clemson at Minnesota
• Wake Forest at Rutgers

Tuesday, Dec. 1
• Maryland at North Carolina
• Virginia at Ohio State
• Michigan at NC State
• Purdue at Pittsburgh
• Northwestern at Virginia Tech
• Miami (Fla.) at Nebraska

Wednesday, Dec. 2
• Indiana at Duke
• Louisville at Michigan State
• Notre Dame at Illinois
• Wisconsin at Syracuse
• Florida State at Iowa
• Penn State at Boston College

No lost causes as Pitino preps for Seattle

Off to Seattle, No. 4 seed in the East Region.

Not a bad place to be for the University of Louisville basketball team. Still lots of respect from the NCAA Selection Committee, despite the departure of Chris Jones, five losses in the last 10 game and the first-game out in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Rick Pitino focused on 20th NCAA trip.
Rick Pitino focused on 20th NCAA trip.

The committee members had to be impressed by an overall record of 24-8 and a conference mark of 12-6 in the ACC that included recent wins over North Carolina and Virginia. One wouldn’t be surprised either if dozens of Montrezl Harrell’s monstrous dunks  on Sportscenter over the past three seasons hadn’t made a lasting impression on them.

“Louisville is a strong team without Chris Jones and they’ll still be a strong team,” said selection committee chairman Scott Barnes. “No bad losses there. We tracked that. We talked quite a bit about it.”

The committee also had to consider the presence of Rick Pitino on the sidelines as a major positive. His 51-17 won-lost record in the NCAA tournament speaks volumes about his post-season coaching abilities.

Winning the East Region is not mission impossible, consisting of Villanova, Virginia, North Carolina State, Oklahoma, Providence, Northern Iowa, Michigan State, LSU, Georgia, Boise State, Wyoming, U.C. Irvine, Albany, Belmont and Albany.

Pitino is back in full Pitino mode, seeming to imply that the loss to North Carolina may have been a blessing, providing UofL with more time to correct its deficiencies. He’s been holding two-a-day practice sessions since returning to Louisville. He indication that one session lasted three-and-a-half hours.

And he’s happy to be going to Seattle because it should be free of distractions from “families and friends.”

The UofL coach told ESPN radio Saturday, “Our only weakness right now (is) challenged shots … This year we’re shooting 8 percent. We have to stay away from that challenged shot.” Later in the day he was bemoaning the lack of offensive rebounding and shot blocking from Chinanu Onuaku. Tomorrow, he may actually deal with the question of not effectively attacking zone defenses.

Pitino is not giving up on this team despite some obvious weaknesses. He been through the wars so many times, with so much success, there’s no such thing as a lost cause. He’s confident in his abilities. Now he believes all has to do is convince his team of theirs.