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Despite Snider’s injury, things are looking up for Cards — thanks to Hicks, Mango, Johnson

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE–We are two games into Quentin Snider’s unscheduled absence from the University of Louisville basketball team and there is plenty of reason for optimism in the Cardinal camp, both in the short term and long range.

UofL (16-4, 4-3) has more than held its own without Snider, its junior point guard who is sidelined for perhaps another two weeks or so with a strained hip flexor. First, the No. 13 Cardinals turned in one of their best offensive performances since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference by burying Clemson 92-60 at home last Thursday night.

Then, with little time to prepare they overcame a horrendous start on the road 36 hours later and took No. 6 Florida State (18-2, 6-1) down to the wire in a 73-68 loss.

There was plenty for Rick Pitino to like from a big-picture standpoint in both games, with a quartet of players showing signs that they are ready to provide significant contributions the rest of the way.

Tony Hicks will likely see time at point guard, allowing Donovan Mitchell to move back to the two spot (UofL Athletics Photo)

With Snider out, Pitino has moved Donovan Mitchell to the point, started swingman V.J. King in Mitchell’s spot and replaced small forward Ray Spalding with Jaylen Johnson after experimenting with various lineups in practice, saying he chose that group for their defense. They provided plenty of offensive firepower, too.

Against Clemson, albeit the last-place team in the ACC, the Cards didn’t appear to miss Snider in the least, committing just 11 turnovers and shooting a season-high 56.3 percent from the field. Mitchell hit his first eight shots, Deng Adel equaled his career best with 18 points, King scored 14 points, Johnson registered just the third double-double of his career with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Mangok Mathiang came off the bench to get 12 points and eight rebounds.

Afterwards, Clemson coach Brad Brownell said he felt Louisville is the best team the Tigers have played this season, with a schedule that has included losses to North Carolina, Notre Dame and Virginia in much closer games.

Mitchell missed his last seven shots against Clemson, then misfired on his first five against Florida State, battled foul trouble and wound up with a season-low six points. In fact, those six points were all that were scored by three of the Cards’ starters — King, Anas Mahmoud and Mitchell — who were hit only 2-of-14 shots.

Pitino praised his team’s hustle and effort, calling it “brilliant,” but criticized Mitchell for reverting to his old ways regarding shot selection, saying the sophomore was “counting his misses” and it affected his defense.

Nevertheless, UofL was able to overcome an early 14-0 deficit and close to within one point on several occasions, thanks to 40 points from its reserves.

“I don’t think our team has a starting five,” Pitino says. “I think that Ray and Jaylen, they take turns starting, flipping a coin. Anas and Mango, the same. So it’s really not a bench. We’ve got 9-10 guys that can play, so we’re lucky.”

“It just shows the growth that we have,” Adel says. “Everybody has so much potential. Everybody is improving and we’re going to keep improving.”

Prior to the last two games, Johnson and Mathiang hadn’t played particularly well. Johnson had scored just 13 points in the first five ACC games, and Mathiang was averaging only 4.6 points and 3.6 rebounds in league play. But against Clemson and FSU, Mathiang has 25 points and 21 rebounds, while Johnson has collected 22 points and 11 boards. Mathiang also got four blocks to move into 10th place on UofL’s all-time list, passing Wesley Cox.

“About 10 days ago was the first time I’ve seen Mango at 100 percent,” Pitino says. “Typical fans yell, ‘get him out, get him out,’ but the guy is coming off a major foot injury. He’s broken the same foot twice. So it takes time to come back from something like that. Mango has been playing great in practice, really gotten back to where he was over a year ago and that’s a big lift for us because he does a lot of great things for us defensively. There was a lot of rust on him. Now he’s he’s active. He’s jumping, he’s running.”

Another bright spot since Snider’s injury has been the play of graduate transfer Tony Hicks, who continues to improve as he gets more comfortable with UofL’s offensive and defensive systems. After scoring nine points against Clemson, Hicks led the Cards with 16 in Tallahassee and has committed just one turnover in those 49 minutes of action, although he also has only one assist. He will probably see more time at point guard in the upcoming games, allowing Mitchell to move back to the two spot.

“Tony Hicks has come from zero ability mentally and physically to play the point guard position, to about 60 percent of the way there, which is awesome in less than 4-5 months,” Pitino says. “Now, he’s got another 40 percent to go, but with his speed, by the end of the season he should be a decent point guard.”

The Cards were also encouraged by the play of senior David Levitch, who also filled in at point guard against the Seminoles and got nine points, three assists and three rebounds in 23 minutes. The points and minutes were both season highs for the North Oldham High School product, who hit 3-of-4 shots.

“On the offensive end, Levitch gives you a big lift,” Pitino says. “On the defensive end, it’s like a disease to him. Everybody tries to stay away from a disease. He’s very much afraid of defense.”

All things considered, Pitino is in no hurry to get Snider back onto the court.

“We’re not going to rush Q back,” he says. “Because what happens with that type of injury is you’re going to rush him back and he hurts something else because he isn’t ready to play.”

Before now, Snider had never missed a game on any level — grade school, junior high, high school or college — due to injury or illness.

Louisville has a good opportunity to put together a three-game winning streak before heading to Virginia on Feb. 6 because its next three games are against teams at the bottom of the ACC — Pittsburgh, NC State and Boston College. Taking it further, other than the Cavaliers, five of the Cards’ next six opponents are in the bottom half of the league.

UofL starts the week in a tie for fifth place in the ACC as it heads to Pittsburgh (12-7, 1-5) Tuesday for a 7 p.m. game. The Panthers have lost four in a row and are one of the worst teams in the ACC in just about every significant category. They are 11th in offensive efficiency, 13th in defensive efficiency, and are allowing foes to shoot 42.6 percent on 3-pointers and 51.3 percent on 2-pointers.

Two weeks ago, UofL built a 26-point lead on Pitt in the KFC Yum! Center, then had to hold on for 1n 85-80 win as the visitors rallied behind 43 points by senior forward Jamel Artis, who hit 5-of-22 shots. The Cards will be seeking their 10th straight win over the Panthers.

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