While some may question his lack of desire, coordination and shooting ability, Ray Spalding has never lacked for support from Rick Pitino. The coach shaking up the lineup, inserting Spalding as a starter on Sunday. Yeah, that Ray Spalding.
This coming off a two-point, four-rebound and two-turnover performance in a losing effort against North Carolina just last Wednesday, evoking familiar complaints from second-guessers in local sports mediums.
Never doubt that Pitino is aware of the awkward shots, the questionable ball-handling and all the miscues, not only in games, but day after day in practice. But the University of Louisville basketball coach also senses the potential waiting to be tapped, the coach allowing himself the luxury of waiting for it to emerge.
Breakthrough performances tend to come and go, so Pitino’s patience may have been only partially rewarded on Sunday in an 88-68 win over Syracuse before 22,482 fans at the KFC Yum! Center.
There he was, knocking the ball away from a Syracuse player on defense, completing a rare alley-oop dunk on a half court pass from Quinten Snider, making a rare jump shot from the top of the key and snatching a rebound — all in the first five minutes, with UofL racing to a 13-6 lead.
All was not perfect. Spalding would miss two free-throw opportunities. But he had already outperformed, making himself a presence to be dealt with from the beginning. Easily the game of his career at UofL, making of eight of nine field goal attempts, grabbing 11 rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.
If Pitino was pleased, he wasn’t making a big deal of Spalding’s game. “What we’ve been lacking is consistency from our front line players,” he said. So the coach is not quite ready to say Spalding has turned any corners. And even if he has, that may be approaching what Pitino expects from the 6-foot-10 sophomore.
— Donovan Mitchell is hitting his stride, leading all scorers with 25 points, including six 3-pointers. He would be credited with four assists and two steals as well.
— Quentin Snider making five of nine field goal attempts for 12 points while making six assists. And get this, no turnovers in 34 minutes of action.
— Deng Adel loving those going-the-distance drives to the basket, so much that we’re likely to see many of them before the end of the season. Notches 17 points.
— Anas Mahmoud (should we say it?) may be back, making four of five shots for 8 points while grabbing nine rebounds. Makes it look easy at times despite his scrawny frame.
— Tony Hicks did play. I missed it, too, but the stat sheets indicate he was in the game for one minute.
— David Levitch back for about eight minutes, apparently working his way of Pitino’s dog house for the last two or three games.
The win improves UofL’s record to 23-6 overall and 11-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, good for second place with a showdown coming against Notre Dame at home next Sunday.
But first one of those dreaded late night ACC road games, this one against Wake Forest at 9 p.m. on Wednesday.