After a sloppy win over UNC-Wilmington Sunday night that impressed no one, Rick Pitino and his Louisville Cardinals hit the road for their first true road game of the season as they travel to Bowling Green, KY for a showdown with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
The Cards may be 9-0 on the season and the #4 team in the country, but most talk surrounding Pitino’s squad this season has been critical rather than complimentary. The team shooting percentage is a paltry 44% from the field, an even worse 27.5% from three-point range, and just 60% from the free throw line. Aside from the poor offensive output, the ball movement has been slow-moving at best, and the lack of a true court leader in the backcourt has been noticeable all season. Behind Player-of-the-Year candidate Montrezl Harrell, Louisville has been able to overcome their early season issues, but with just two games left before the highly anticipated showdown with top-ranked Kentucky, the team needs to get up to speed sooner than later if they hope to avoid their 7th loss in 8 games to John Calipari’s squad.
First, though, they have to get past the other in-state team in Western. Will the Cards come out focused after a humbling experience last week, or will the first game in a venue where the majority of fans will be cheering against them get into their heads? We shall see soon enough.
Coach Ray Harper is now in his fourth season at WKU after taking over mid-season from Ken McDonald in 2011, and after accumulating a 51-35 record in his first three seasons (and two NCAA Tournament appearances), he has this year’s team off to a 5-4 start.
They return all but two players from last season’s team, who lost to Louisville 79-63 at the YUM! Center, including the top two scorers from last season’s team in sharp-shooting guard TJ Price and strong power forward George Fant. Price will challenge Louisville on the perimeter, as he has hit 24 fo 50 three-point attempts this season, is averaging nearly 6 rebounds a game, and he is coming off of a season-high 29 points vs. Chicago State.
Fant lacks the height of a traditional power forward (6-6), but he makes up for it with his strength. With his 250-lb. frame, he looks capable of being a division 1 defensive end, but the former all-state player from Warren Central High School has been a valuable contributor in his four years in Bowling Green and enters the Louisville game averaging 11 points and 7 rebounds. He should battle with the Louisville bigs in the paint.
WKU fields a veteran team in their first season in C-USA and would like nothing more than to knock off the in-state Cards at home, but Louisville’s talent and especially their size should cause problems. England-born big man Ben Lawson, at 7-1, is the only primary contributor above 6-7 on the team, and with the always difficult Harrell to contain along with the rest of Louisville’s young, but talented, bigs, it will be a difficult obstacle to hurdle.
Bounce back game?
After being criticized by both Pitino and Harrell after the lackluster UNC-Wilmington performance, Louisville’s practices this week probably did not look much like the beach ball on the ice practice from D2: The Mighty Ducks, and per the coach, the team responded well, he said on his Thursday night radio show. Now they just have to incorporate it into Saturday’s game.
Turnovers, unforced turnovers at that, have been plaguing the Cards recently, and that lack of discipline can and will bite them if they continue treading along that path. WKU is a better team than UNC-Wilmington, and Ray Harper, who has two NAIA national championships under his belt, is no slouch on the sideline. If Louisville does not take care of the ball, the Hilltoppers will capitalize, but if they do take care and play smart basketball, this could be a rout to restore confidence.
Chris Jones will need to better facilitate the offense and quit dribbling so much. Terry Rozier will have to find open teammates. Chinanu Onuaku, who Pitino said does not go hard every play, is going to need to come out of this slump he is in and quit getting lost on his defensive assignments in the paint. The team as a whole will need to play better, but if those three guys can do those three things, the team will look much more like the squad that spanked Indiana in New York than the team who dragged their feet through mud against UNC-Wilmington.
Welcome to college…finally
Saturday could very well be Cards fans’ first look at marquee freshman wing Shaqquan Aaron, who after a drawn out process by the always-competent NCAA in which they examined his eligibility status, will be able to make his college. Aaron was a top-30 talent and a Jordan Brand All-American (and ridiculous McDonald’s All-American snub), but it is important for fans to temper expectations. It is never easy for freshmen to jump seamlessly into Pitino’s system, and some lumps should be expected. He is also rail-thin and may not be ready to be as physical as he needs to be. He is a good shooter, though, a great ball handler for his frame, and at the very least, should be able to give Louisville a solid 10+ minutes off the bench when Wayne Blackshear needs a breather.
Calling for bench help
They have taken baby steps in the right direction, but it would be encouraging to see someone coming off the Louisville bench have more than just a decent game where they keep the status quo while the starter is on the bench. It would be nice to see someone on the bench show himself to be more than just a reserve in the tank, but someone capable of being a difference maker.
Anas Mahmoud has been the closest to that level, with several ooh and aah moments this season, but he is still in learning mode and Pitino has been critical of his lack of a killer attitude. Quentin Snider is getting better each game, but he rarely does more than just hold the ship in place. Anton Gill has been struggling horribly all season, and while Mangok Mathiang played admirably vs. Indiana, his horrid game vs. UNC-Wilmington sucked the wind right out of that performance. Freshman Jaylen Johnson looks to have the most potential of being that type of player, but he is still trying to grasp Pitino’s system and cannot go all out yet.
There is going to be a point this season where one or multiple starters will be in foul trouble when the team is behind or in a battle. One of the above players is going to have to be relied upon to step up their game and be more than just another body on the floor. This Saturday at Western Kentucky is as good a time as any for any of them to prove they are ready to take their game to the next level.
Louisville 83, WKU 61
The Cards should roll into Bowling Green with a major chip on their shoulder and something to prove. Pitino has called them out all week, their best player and team captain questioned their attitude, and every national publication only cares about one team in the state, and it is not the team wearing the red and black. Louisville will be looking to take out there frustrations on somebody, and unfortunately for Western, they happen to be in the way. No way this team wants to face another wrath of Pitino, so this one could get ugly quick if Louisville comes to play. If they don’t, then there are serious problems with this team.