By Ken Cross
Louisville coach Rick Pitino was outwardly questioned about the challenge of his non-conference schedule by the media denizens in the Commonwealth, which left people in the basketball community scratching their collective heads. First, they lost two quality players and leaders in Terry Dozier and Montrezl Harrell to the NBA plus they were returning only 17 percent of their scoring and 25 percent of their assists coming into this season. Only center Mangok Mathiang, out with an injury, and David Levitch, a seldom used guard, had more than one year of experience.
It’s not in any team’s best interest to go schedule, for example, five Top 20 teams, and a competitive holiday tournament when there is little experience returning and a chemistry that takes time to develop. From a psychological standpoint, a team such as this has to have time to breath. A Hall of Fame coach like Rick Pitino knows this.
Even as the Cardinals lost a 75-73 thriller when Damion Lee’s buzzer-beating triple fell short, the idea that Louisville didn’t need an oxygen tank going into league play was underscored. The Cardinals fell behind 52-36 out of halftime and fought their way back, literally clawing and scratching, to a 65-64 deficit late in the game until Tyler Ulis and Dominique Hawkins stepped up and made a pair of key threes that kept the ‘Ville from winning at Rupp Arena for the first time since 2009.
“They made jump shots that I wouldn’t want my kids to take, you have to give them credit,” said Pitino, later, “That was the difference in the game, they were literally seven or eight feet behind the line and made the shot. Q (Quinten Snyder) had to know where Ulis was. He had to get up on him a little more as time was running out.”
With all those, the Cardinals had the last shot with Damion Lee fading to his left at the buzzer and missing. Lee finished 8-of-20 from the floor and 9-of-10 at the line as he scored 27 points in playing the entire 40 minutes. Pitino explained the last play and how possibly the shot Lee wound up with was the last of the possibilities he had drawn up.
“I was going to have him come off and if he was open he could shoot it and if not, we were throwing it in to Chinanu,” said Pitino, “If that’s not open or neither guy is open, he’s going to get a pick and roll. He switched the pick and roll and was trying to take a pull back shot, which was not a good shot.”
Pitino noted that Kentucky defended Lee well, but the circumstances in which he took the potential game-winner were not the best.
“We wanted to go inside, or get a good shot,” he analyzed, “If it was a three, it was ok. I didn’t want a step back situation like that, but you have to give your best player who is having a great night a little leeway if it comes to that.”
The fight that was in the Cardinals to get in position is evident of a team that can go on the road in the ACC and battle with what is probably the deepest conference in the nation. Louisville was picked seventh in the league and has lost Mathiang for the six to eight weeks with a broken bone in his foot; yet, the shooting prowess of Lee and Lewis and a 10-rebound advantage gave the Cardinals an opportunity for the win.
“I told my staff at the end of the (last) year, don’t get me any freshmen – get me two fifth year seniors that can play,” said Pitino of Lee and Lewis, “They said ‘why’? I said because they are not going to win in the ACC. I said we will be a .500 team rebuilding if we don’t get two fifth-year seniors to play. You take those two guys out of tonight’s game, we lose by 25 or 30.”
League play opens Sunday night at 8 p.m. against Wake Forest in the KFCYum! Center.