Cards' Resiliency Will Be Tested
02/15/2013 10:24 AM
This Louisville team has taken turns driving both its fans and Coach Rick Pitino crazy.
Its late-game execution has left a lot to be desired. Its shot selection, at times, can be labeled sketchy at best. This certainly hasn’t been a group that has captured the hearts and imagination of the fan base, at least not yet anyway.
But there’s a reason why no one has given up, despite the season-long rollercoaster. If you know these Cards, you know if they’ve proven anything, they’ve proven to have some resiliency.
Every year there’s going to a puzzling loss or two. There will likely be some injuries. And there’ll also be its fair share of drama.
The fans know it and seem like they’ve almost come to expect it. And to the credit of Pitino and the players, they’ve also shown that they know how to deal with it.
They showed it last season when they shrugged off a 2-4 finish to the regular season to advance to the Final Four. And they’ve shown it at various points this season.
Understandably there was trepidation when Gorgui Dieng went down with a wrist injury in the Missouri game. But UofL held serve during Dieng’s seven-game absence, battling Duke to the wire and winning at Memphis.
The Cards appeared to hit the skids after reaching No. 1 for the first time. They blew a late lead at home to Syracuse, then bumbled its way to back-to-back road losses at Villanova and Georgetown.
But Louisville shook that off and posted back-to-back home wins against Pittsburgh and Marquette, and the Pitt win looks a lot better than it did on Jan. 28. Since the UofL loss the Panthers have beaten Syracuse and won at Cincinnati.
And just when you thought the ship was righted, the Cards crashed once again, dropping a five-OT heartbreaker at Notre Dame. UofL fans, you should have seen it coming. You know nothing’s ever easy with these guys.
I know you were hoping to have the kind of regular season that Indiana’s having right now. Outside of the in-bounds gaffe at Illinois, the Hoosiers have looked like a crisp and well-oiled machine most of the year. They make shots. They play smart. They play together. Yes, they’ve lost three games, but they were spread out (one each in December, January and February). And they were close losses (by a combined nine points) to NCAA Tournament teams Butler, Wisconsin and Illinois.
But that’s just not the way Louisville rolls.
Look at Pitino’s three most successful teams at Louisville. In 2005 the Cards lost on the road to a horrible Houston team and were blown out at Freedom Hall by a Memphis squad that didn’t make the tournament.
The 2010 squad that earned the No. 1 overall seed in the tourney that year suffered a disturbing 33-point loss at Notre Dame. Last year’s issues have been well-documented.
There seemed to be some nervous tension in the air at the KFC Yum Center before last night’s game with St. John’s. There really shouldn’t have been. Everyone in the building knew Louisville, who was a 17-point favorite, was the superior team. But with these guys, you never know. Would the Cards’ heads still be in the clouds after the epic fail in South Bend? All week I pointed out the similarities with last year’s South Florida game. The Bulls, much like St. John’s this year, were a bubble team looking for a boost to its NCAA tourney resume’. USF caught an unfocused UofL team napping on Senior Night, pulled the upset, and got into the tourney.
Last night, Louisville rose to the occasion and held serve. It wasn’t always pretty, as the Cardinals squandered a nine-point halftime lead and trailed by one early in the second half. But they put their foot on the gas enough to secure a 72-58 win.
Pitino has faced his fair share of criticism (and I’ve been one of the critics) when the Cardinals go into one of their periodic funks; his end-of-game situations, tactics and demeanor all coming into question.
But let’s give credit where credit is due. While Pitino’s demanding style can lead to bouts of mental fatigue with players, he also knows how to snap players out of it. Pitino and Russ Smith have had moments where they both looked like they wanted to kill each other, but in the locker room after the St. John’s game, Smith said it was his coach’s positivity that helped him overcome his horrendous late-game performance against Notre Dame.
Smith rebounded with a game-high 24 points along with six assists and no turnovers.
“I was texting and speaking with (Pitino) a lot, and he really helped me get over (the Notre Dame game),” Smith said. “He let me know that we have a whole season to play and we have to move on to the next game. He just to me to not make the same mistakes again. He was way more positive than I was, and I love Coach for that.”
Louisville’s resiliency will face the ultimate test the next six weeks. Pitino set a goal of winning its final seven games, but it won’t be easy. There’s a trip to Syracuse. Cincinnati at home won’t be a walk in the park. And oh yeah, there’s that rematch with Notre Dame on Senior Day, when the Cardinals’ collapse in South Bend will be replayed over and over and over.
If the Cards drop one or more of the remaining games, the anxiety will increase, the second-guessing and finger-pointing will escalate, and the message boards will light up.
Ultimately, though, this UofL team will be judged on what they do in March. So until then, regardless of what happens these final six games, they’ll need to do what they’ve had plenty of practice doing the last couple of seasons: shake everything off.
There’s a reason why, despite the team’s uneven play of late, that many people still label Louisville as a national title contender.
It’s because that no matter how bad they look or how much is going on around them, they’ve shown that they can flip the switch on at any moment. And while the Cards still didn’t look 100 percent right against St. John’s, when that switch gets flipped, anything’s possible.
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