Louisville Needs To Find Its Identity

02/11/2013 02:38 PM

It’s just about mid-February, and in college basketball that means that most of your fine tuning should be done by now.
Roles should be defined. Rotations should be settled. Chemistry should be formed. For the most part, you are what you are.
Next month’s NCAA Tournament figures to be a hodgepodge of good teams, but no great, dominant ones. With the talent so evenly spread out, intangibles mean more than ever.
Both the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky have the talent to do damage in the Big Dance. Problem is, with March looming, both teams still seem to be searching for their identities.
We can talk about the Cats in another column, because to put it simply, there’s more of a sense of urgency at Louisville right now. John Calipari got Cat fans the ring they had been starving for last year and has a monster recruiting class coming in for 2013-14. I don’t know if there’s ever a such thing as a ‘free pass’ at Kentucky, but as long as the team doesn’t embarrass themselves in the upcoming tournament all would be forgiven.
Louisville, on the other hand, is living in the now. The fans have been patiently waiting for a title since 1986, and watching UK hang three banners during that time span hasn’t helped matters. You know the competitor in Rick Pitino wants it badly. A trip to the Final Four whetted everyone’s appetite; now everyone wants a taste of the trophy.
There were some disturbing trends that flared up in UofL’s epic five-OT loss at Notre Dame that makes me wonder if the Cards really know who they are right now. Once again, the Cardinals late-game execution was a hot mess, which is inexcusable for a veteran team.
The Cards have a lot of pieces. But they haven’t figured out the perfect way to make all those pieces fit. The team still hasn’t figured who to run its offense through in crunch time. Siva has made big plays in the past but has struggled in that role this season. Russ Smith took the baton by default against the Irish when Siva fouled out in the second overtime. And to put it kindly, it wasn’t his finest moment. (The 30-foot jack at the end of the first overtime and the forced layup with the Cards nursing a two-point lead with 26 seconds left in the fourth overtime have been re-hashed endlessly) . Chane Behanan was a man on Saturday with 30 points and 15 rebounds, but he’s also had issues with both catching the ball around the basket and free-throw shooting.
Russ is getting beat up on the message boards, but if everyone in the Louisville locker room Saturday night in South Bend looked in the mirror and was honest with themselves, most could (or should) take some credit for their part in the collapse in South Bend, Pitino included. Luke Hancock was jacking up threes like he was Larry Bird but missed nine of his 13 attempts. Peyton Siva left Pitino no other option but to turn the ball over to Russ after fouling out in the second overtime. Siva hasn’t been right since the Syracuse game. His assists have remained steady over the past seven games, but he’s averaging just five points on 33 percent shooting during that span. Worse, Siva’s body language has mirrored his play.
And while Behanan and Gorgui Dieng’s combined numbers (47 points, 28 rebounds) were sparkling, they also helped to make previously unused center Garrick Sherman (17 points, six rebounds) look like a young Kevin McHale in the paint when Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey was forced to play him after all of his other available big men fouled out.
As for Pitino, he has to take some responsibility for Louisville’s inability to execute in the clutch. But to me, the X’s and O’s stuff is secondary. ESPN kept going to shots of both the Louisville and Notre Dame benches as the drama unfolded. As the camera flashed to Pitino, he was usually in the middle of A) some dramatic hand or body gesture; B) a facial expression of angst; or C) berating a player.
Then they’d flash over to Brey on the Notre Dame sideline, and Brey was laughing, clapping and encouraging his guys. The Notre Dame players seemed be relishing the experience and having fun. The Louisville players, on the other hand, had their heads down and looked as if they had the weight of the world on their shoulders.
While ESPN analyst Jay Bilas called the loss ‘devastating’ for Louisville, I disagree. The loss is only devastating if the team lets it be. The Cardinals need to take a page out of IU’s book. The Hoosiers blew a 12-point lead at Illinois last week, losing the game when a blown defensive assignment led to a wide-open Illini layup at the buzzer. That’s the kind of loss that can linger for awhile, but the Hoosiers wouldn’t let it. Three days later they traveled to Columbus and thrashed a good Ohio State team.
St. John’s comes to Freedom Hall Thursday night, and in many ways it reminds me of last year’s South Florida game. Like the Bulls last year, the Red Storm is trying to fight its way into the tourney. UofL came into that game flat and South Florida pulled the upset. In its last two road games, St. John’s lost by 12 at Georgetown and by 19 at Syracuse. If the Cards are mentally right, it’s a game they should win going away. They have to put the Notre Dame game behind them, avoid finger-pointing and take care of business. The blame game rarely works, and Kansas is a perfect example. KU Coach Bill Self ripped senior point guard Elijah Johnson a new one after his team lost to Oklahoma State at home. Since then, the Jayhawks were embarrassed by TCU, one of the worst teams in a power conference, and lost a road game at unranked Oklahoma.
UofL was able to miraculously right the ship last year and get to the Final Four. And let’s be honest. How much does the regular season really matter anyway? Big East champions? Been there, done that. No. 1 overall seed going into the Big Dance? Likewise. The Cards will be ultimately judged on how they perform in March. And while they’ve proven they can do it before, it’s dangerous to rely on fixing flaws in mid-February. Louisville needs to find an identity, and they need to find it fast.

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