March 17, 2019

Men’s basketball down to final opportunity to prove itself as No. 7 seed

By Matt Bradshaw —

For the second time since 2007, men’s basketball returns to the NCAA tournament following a one-year absence. The Louisville Cardinals (20-13) earned a No. 7 seed in the 2019 Big Dance and look to make a deep run after losing to Virginia in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament.

No. 7 seed Louisville faces Richard Pitino’s No. 10 seed Minnesota (21-13) in the first round of the NCAA tournament in the East Region. Duke is the No. 1 seed of the region and top seed of the tournament.

If the Cardinals beat the Golden Gophers, they will most likely rematch with No. 2 seed Michigan State. U of L beat State in overtime at the Yum! Center early in the regular season. The Spartans are hot off defeating Michigan in the Big Ten tournament championship.

All season long, the conversation about this Louisville team has centered around its unrealized potential to compete for an entire game. From its November loss against Tennessee to its February loss against Duke, Louisville has demonstrated the talent to contend with the best of the best.

“The best teams in the country are who we’re going up against,” sophomore Jordan Nwora said. “They’re teams that are going to be competing for a national championship. It definitely prepares you for that next step.”

Contending is not enough, as teams need the ability to finish games in order to be the victor. The Cards have shown they can finish high-octane fights, with regular-season wins over Michigan State, Seton Hall, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.

The problem is consistency, and whether head coach Chris Mack’s team has the capacity to carry consistency into the NCAA tournament. Even though they lost five of their last seven games, the Cardinals still believe they have the ability to do so. It will take extreme resolve and poise to back that confidence with success.

“We’ve got to execute the game plan,” graduate guard Christen Cunningham said. “We know what we have to do to beat teams. The coaches do a great job of putting us in a position to be successful, but they can’t get out there and play transition D for us or do whatever the game plan is for that particular opponent. We just have to concentrate and lock in on it.”

One other issue with Louisville involves costly mistakes. Unlike more talented teams, the Cardinals do not have the luxury of being able to play poorly and still win. Teams like Duke, who beat Louisville after trailing by 23 points, can afford to lag and make up for it later.

It may sound cliche, but this is true: Every Louisville player must perform well for the team to succeed in the NCAA tournament. Down to its last opportunity to prove itself, the Cardinals cannot struggle shooting, rebounding, defending or turning the ball over.

If Louisville can execute its game plan, a Sweet 16 run is definitely possible. If not, an earlier exit seems more likely. And if the latter scenario occurs, the question will be asked: Was Mack’s first season as head coach a resounding success, simply acceptable or somewhere in between?

You can follow the Louisville Cardinal on Twitter @thecardsports.

File Photo / The Louisville Cardinal

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