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Atmosphere different this year as Cards begin potential drive toward high seed in NCAA tournament


By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE–Heading into the final week of the regular season, the atmosphere couldn’t be more different than at this time last year for the University of Louisville basketball team. So much more is at stake. So much more fun to experience.

As the 2016 season was winding down, the Cardinals may as well have been planning where they were going to spend their spring break because there would be no postseason tournaments, either the ACC or NCAA, due to the self-imposed ban by the school as a penalty for the stripper scandal.

But as No. 7/6 UofL (22-6, 10-5 ACC) gets ready to meet Syracuse (17-12, 9-7) Sunday at 2:07 p.m. in the KFC Yum! Center, followed by a trip to Wake Forest Wednesday and its final home game next Saturday against Notre Dame, the postseason possibilities are enticing.

As No. 7/6 UofL (22-6, 10-5 ACC) gets ready to meet Syracuse (17-12, 9-7) Sunday at 2:07 p.m. in the KFC Yum! Center, followed by a trip to Wake Forest Wednesday and its final home game next Saturday against Notre Dame, the postseason possibilities are enticing. (UofL Athletics Photo)

While the Cards probably lost their chance for a No. 1 NCAA seed with Wednesday’s 74-63 loss at North Carolina, a No. 2 seems almost assured barring a late meltdown, as does a serious run at their first ACC Tournament championship March 7-11 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

“For me, it’s definitely a new feeling,” sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell said Friday before practice. “I know for guys like Quentin (Snider) and Mango (Mathiang) and Jaylen (Johnson) and Anas (Mahmoud), they’ve been through it and they know how practice is going to start changing.

“It’s a good different, a good feeling going out there and knowing we’re getting ready to play in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, something you’ve dreamed about your whole life and now it’s here and it’s real. Now we’ve got to focus on making those same small plays that we made in games we’ve won by a considerable amount. That’s what Coach preaches. In these next few games you’re going to see how mature we are as a team.”

One of the changes that needs to happen is improvement at the free throw line. And since poor free throw shooting has been a problem all season, it may not be realistic to think the Cards are suddenly going to become a collection of Stephan Currys at the foul stripe.

The Cards have made just 68.4 percent of their free throws, which is 231st in the nation. In ACC play, they are even worse, having made 204-of-306 for 66.7 percent, No. 13 in the 15-team league.

In the loss at North Carolina, UofL missed nine of its 13 free throws and in the 76-72 overtime win at Syracuse on Feb. 13, the Cards were just 16-of-30, including key misses while losing a seven-point lead in the final minutes of regulation. Only Ryan McMahon’s heroics off the bench, with seven points in OT, prevented an upset loss.

“Like I’ve said many times, we probably work on free throws more than anyone because you have to sacrifice a lot of your practice time,” UofL coach Rick Pitino says. “But if you can shoot from outside, generally you can shoot free throws, and we’ve got six frontcourt players who don’t shoot free throws well. Probably out best is Matz (Stockman), who doesn’t play too much. So it’s something they have to spend extra time. You’ve got to work on technique. It’s not just getting in the gym because if you’re shooting them the wrong way you’re just repeating a bad habit.”

Louisville’s two worst free throw shooters in conference games are Mahmoud (18-35, 51.4 percent) and Ray Spalding (16-36, 44.4). Not surprisingly, Mitchell is the team’s best marksman at the foul line at 82.4 percent (42-51). Take his numbers out of the mix, and the rest of the team is shooting a miserable 63.5 percent, which would rank 337th out of 347 Division I teams.

Mitchell says he tries to encourage his teammates not to drop their heads over their free throw shooting woes, and he took Spalding into the Yum! Center practice gym to shoot free throws when they returned from North Carolina in the wee hours Thursday morning.

As the games get more important, more pressure-packed and closer in the postseason, making a higher percentage of free throws will become even more vital.

“I’m just trying to talk to every guy individually and tell them to not get too discouraged,” Mitchell says. “You miss free throws, it happens. Unfortunately, it happened at a high rate in that particular game, but you can’t let that affect your confidence when you go to the line the rest of the year because these are going to be some big, big games coming up.

“A lot of teams are going to look at that and try to use that to their advantage. You’ve got to make weakness your strength. The good thing about free throws is it’s something you can work on. If you work on your free throws for a week, you’ll be a much improved shooter at the end of the week than you were at the beginning, so that’s what I keep preaching. Just keep working at it, don’t get discouraged.”

STARTING LINEUP CHANGES

In the last three games, Pitino has gone with the same starting lineup of Johnson and Deng Adel at the wings, Mangok Mathiang at center and Snider and Mitchell at guard. But he said that will change against Syracuse and it’s 2-3 zone, which limited UofL to 41.9 percent shooting and created 15 turnovers in the first meeting.

“Starting doesn’t mean a whole lot because everybody knows that if you’re in the rotation you’re going to play a lot and if you play well you’re going to have more minutes,” Pitino said. “But we’ll probably shake things up in this game just from the standpoint of seeing which five players can attack the zone the best.”

Thus, Pitino joked that sports information director Kenny Klein’s lineup in the game notes was “basically fake news.”

NO REGRETS OVER FAN INCIDENT

Pitino was asked if he wishes he would have reacted differently to an insult from a North Carolina fan as the Cards walked off the court at halftime in the Dean Smith Center.

“Not at all,” he responded. “Look you guys (reporters) have been with me on the road and you hear things students say that would make the devil bunch. But what irked me about that person was (a) he was an adult, (b) it was at Carolina and Carolina has the classiest fans in all of college basketball and (c) he was right off my shoulder and screamed it and then turned his back on me when I turned to see if it was a student. I did not ask him to be ejected, all I wanted to do was express my First Amendment rights and tell him what I thought of his comment.”

With TV cameras recording the scene, Pitino had to be restrained by assistant coaches and his security detail.

Asked what the fan’s comment was, Pitino said it was irrelevant, adding that, “As I said, it’s nothing compared to what is said to coaches by student bodies and elsewhere. It was just off my shoulder. He screamed into my ear for no rhyme or reason, and then turned his back like a coward.”

ESPN reported that the fan, who was later ejected, yelled, “Pitino, you suck.”

Emphasizing that it was just one fan, Pitino was complimentary of the North Carolina fans, who have been characterized as primarily a polite wine and cheese crowd.

“I have found that, in my 40-plus years of coaching, that going into North Carolina, and I’ve done it many times, they are the classiest fans in the business,” he said. “I’m sure he had a few beverages, so I didn’t want to make it any big deal, but I did want to say something back to him.”


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