By Dalton Ray–
One year removed from being banned from the NCAA tournament, the men’s basketball team enters the 2017 tournament as a two seed. Losing two of their last three games, Louisville will need to shake their recent losing ways if they want to make their seventh Final Four.
Why they will: Battle tested
According to CBSSports, Louisville (24-8, 12-6) has the nation’s second hardest schedule. Their combined opponent winning percentage is 63 percent, behind only Vanderbilt’s 64. Playing in arguably the nation’s toughest conference, the Cardinals have played 11 of the 68 teams in the tournament.
This level of competition should pay off for U of L as they have adjusted to the higher standard of play. The big names in Louisville’s region are one seed Kansas, three seed Oregon (preseason number five), four seed Purdue (Big Ten regular season champion), five seed Iowa State (Big 12 tournament runner-up), seven seed Michigan (Big Ten tournament champions) and eight seed Miami.
Louisville has two games in which they have lost by more than 10 points (North Carolina and Virginia). In the other six losses, the Cardinals trailed by as many as 21, 17, 14, 11, 10 and five. The biggest deficit of the season, against UVA at home, Louisville was on paced to get ran out of the gym the in front of their home crowd. Instead of admitting defeated, U of L fought back and made it a three possession game with under 10 to play in the second half.
The Cardinals have fight and this is shown by their non-existent lopsided losses. This fire is needed once it comes to the tournament as every possession and every second counts.
The perfect recipe
On paper, Louisville has everything a coach could want.
A calm and cool minded point guard that can score when needed? Check. A next-level star to carry the team? Check. Defensive-able wing defender that can pitch in offensively? Check. An athletic and long front court? Check. Proven X-factors off the bench? Check.
Louisville’s three guaranteed starters, Quentin Snider, Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel, carry the load offensively with an average of 40 points per game. The first four front court players (Jaylen Johnson, Mangok Mathiang, Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud) give Louisville flexibility in the paint. Tony Hicks and VJ King give the able players that can fill in at the one and two spots. Ryan McMahon and David Levitch have shown they can play meaningful minutes for coach Rick Pitino.
Why they won’t: No painstaking loss
In 2013 when Louisville won the national championship, one couldn’t help but look back to the loss in the 2012 Final Four against rival Kentucky. The loss, while dismal at the time, was more than crucial to the championship run. It showed how close they are; what could have been. This team has nothing close to that level of a loss. Or even the 2015 loss in to Elite Eight to Michigan State.
A common trait among successful team is you have to learn to lose first. This Louisville team has not experienced anything close to such loss.
Free throw woes
In Louisville’s most recent loss against Duke, free throws killed the Cardinals. The loss against the Blue Devils isn’t the first time charity stripe has harmed the Cardinals this year. U of L’s 68.5 percent at the line ranks them 232 in the nation.
In the tournament, every little detail matters and one of the most overlooked aspect is the free throw line. Based on the season average, Louisville will be in trouble if the came comes down to hitting the free shots from 13 feet away.
Final five-minute offense
One thing more consistent than Louisville achieving 20 wins is a season under the Pitino era is the struggle on the offensive end during the closing minutes. For immediate reference, check the tape against the ACC quarterfinals loss against Duke. Louisville doesn’t have a hands-down, go-to guy on the offensive end where Louisville can put the ball in one player’s hands and go to work.
One would assume that it would be Mitchell, but Pitino has admitted in the final offensive possession against the Blue Devils, the play had three or four opportunities for a player to score. While this is a good design, playing hot potato could cause a team troubles as the waffle through who takes the important shots during the final minutes.
Photo by Laurel Slaughter / The Louisville Cardinal