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Despite lack of tournament experience, Pitino thinks tough schedule has Cards ready to go


By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE — Sitting out last year’s Big Dance as wallflowers under the school’s self-imposed postseason ban means that very few players on Louisville’s current roster have NCAA Tournament experience.

In fact, only two — junior guard Quentin Snider and senior center Mangok Mathiang — have logged significant minutes in an NCAA game.

Snider and Mathiang were starters on UofL’s 2015 team that won three games to advance to the East Regional final in Syracuse before losing to Michigan State 76-70 in overtime.

Starters Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel will be playing in their first NCAA Tournament, as will sometime starter Ray Spaulding and reserves V.J. King and Tony Hicks (UofL Athletics Photo)

In wins over UC Irvine (57-55), Northern Iowa (66-53) and NC State, along with the loss to the Spartans, Snider played 151 of the 165 minutes, averaging 11.0 points, while Mathiang racked up 111 minutes and contributed a total of nine points and 18 rebounds. Three other members of this year’s team, forward Jaylen Johnson, center Anas Mahmoud and guard David Levitch played a combined 27 minutes.

Snider has started every game this season when healthy — he missed six with an injury — averaging 12.7 points and 4.1 assists. Mathiang has been in and out of the starting lineup and is averaging 7.4 ppg and 6.1 rpg.

Starters Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel will be playing in their first NCAA Tournament, as will sometime starter Ray Spaulding and reserves V.J. King and Tony Hicks. For all practical purposes, so will Johnson, Mahmoud and Levitch.

But coach Rick Pitino says he isn’t worried about the novice aspect for his team because of what he calls the Cardinals’ “meat-grinder” schedule and the fact that they have played on a big stage plenty of times this season in the nation’s best conference, the ACC.

UofL (24-8) faced the nation’s second-toughest schedule, including 16 games against 14 tournament teams, and didn’t have a loss to anyone above a top-40 RPI.
“So we’re more than ready to play because of the competition we’ve played, even though we lack experience,” Pitino says. “And we play in front of 22,000 people at home, played in front of some tough crowds on the road. Yes, we’re going to play some great competition (in the tourney), but we have played great competition. Our schedule has helped us evolve.

“I was hoping it would end this way. I was really hoping I didn’t bury them mentally or physically. I didn’t expect (24-8). I was hoping to be 22-9 or 21-10, something like that, with this type of schedule. But they got through it, they did a great job and it’s made us a much better basketball team because of it. When you play Baylor, Wichita State, Kentucky, Purdue, the ACC meat-grinder, you’re prepared for these big moments.”

It also helped the Cards land a No. 2 seed despite losing three of their last five games, being bounced from the ACC Tournament by Duke in their debut and going 1-6 against current Top-25 teams away from home.

In discussing UofL’s seeding on Selection Sunday, selection committee chairman Mark Hollis, the athletics director at Michigan State, confirmed that the committee liked the Cards’ challenging schedule. He pointed out there were no “bad losses” and that Louisville had some signficant wins, albeit at home, against Purdue, Kentucky and Notre Dame.

Starting Friday, the Cards will get a chance to not only justify their seeding but get some long-awaited redemption and satisfaction after sitting out last year’s tourney. UofL will open against No. 15 Jacksonville State (20-14) at approximately 2:45 p.m. EDT in the Indianapolis pod of the Midwest Regional in Banker’s Life Fieldhouse.

No. 7 Michigan (24-11) and No. 10 Oklahoma State (20-12) will tip off at 12:15, with the winners of the first two games meeting Sunday for the chance to advance to the Midwest Regional of the Sweet Sixteen in Kansas City next week.

“The theme this year was going in there and playing our butts off because last year we didn’t get that opportunity,” Mitchell says. “We’re excited to be back and get ready to get to the national championship, hopefully. A lot of the guys haven’t been in the tournament or played major minutes, so we’re so eager and so hungry to get to that point. We’re like the kid who always wants to reach that cookie, but can’t quite get it. Right now we’re trying to get that cookie we couldn’t have last year.”

Mathiang’s advice to his teammates who will be getting their first taste of the NCAA tourney is to “just have fun with it.”

“A lot of young guys when they go into the tournament, there’s so much pressure because it’s one loss and you’re going home,” Mathiang says. “Don’t think about that. You can think about it to get yourself going, but then the key is having fun.”

Having fun shouldn’t be much of a problem against Jax State because the Ohio Valley Conference team appears to be badly overmatched. The Gamecocks, who were picked to finish last in the OVC but won the league tourney to gain an automatic bid, is No. 158 in the RPI. Jax State averaged just 69.7 points, 11th in the OVC, and was last in turnover margin (minus 2.6), which could be a huge problem against a Louisville defense that is among the best in the nation.

“I expect a team that’s going to come right after us, right from the get-go, right from the opening tip,” said first-year Jax State coach Ray Harper. “They’re going to try to set the tone. They’re going to be the bully, and we’ll see if we allow them to bully us.

“We’re going to have to rebound the ball, and we’re going to have to take care of the ball. And we’re going to have to throw in some shots too. Hopefully, we can throw in a lot of long-range threes. That would be nice.”


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