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Mitchell’s outburst fuels Cardinals’ offensive resurgence as N.C. State falls in rout

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

LOUISVILLE — When starting point guard Quentin Snider went to the sidelines with a hip injury, followed by his backup, Tony Hicks, with a broken hand, there were concerns that an already-struggling Louisville offense might encounter even more problems.

After all, the Cardinals were already near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference in nearly all of the major offensive categories. But surprisingly, they have not only survived, but thrived as they await Snider’s return in another week or two.

UofL’s latest offensive clinic came Sunday afternoon in the KFC Yum! Center, where the No. 13AP/14 Cards (18-4, 6-3 ACC) destroyed NC State (14-8, 3-6) 85-60, a victory that — coupled with the week’s wave of upsets — thrust them into the thick of the league race at the halfway point.

No Cardinal has shot any better in the three wins than sophomore Donovan Mitchell, who is averaging 25 ppg in that trio of games and shooting 57.8 percent (26-45)

While UofL has built its identity this season as one of the best defensive teams in the country, an offense that has played second fiddle is improving and is now showing signs of also becoming a huge factor. In their three wins since Snider went out, the Cards have averaged 94.3 points per game and shot 55 percent (105-191), including 48.5 percent (33-68) from 3-point range. By contrast, their season averages are 77.6 ppg, 44.9 and 35.1, and they were subject to extended scoring droughts.

So how has this happened, with Snider having missed four games and Hicks, the last 1 1/2 games? Part of the sudden and unexpected improvement certainly has to do with a piece of good luck involving the schedule. The three lopsided victories have come against teams in the bottom half of the ACC — Clemson (92-60), Pittsburgh (106-51), the two worst teams in the league, and NC State.

In their only game against a quality team during that stretch, the Cards didn’t fare nearly as well, shooting just 38.5 percent overall and hitting only 2-of-13 three-pointers in a 73-68 loss to No. 6/8 Florida State in Tallahasse.

Still, UofL’s offense wasn’t humming along at its recent pace even when the Cards played outclassed competition during the first 2 1/2 months of the season, and this has been the most productive three-game stretch in coach Rick Pitino’s 16-year tenure.

Pitino believes ball movement and player movement has a lot to do with UofL’s recent success in putting the ball in the basket consistently and the improvement in passing of forwards Ray Spalding and Jaylen Johnson in particular.

“For some reason, the last 10 days or so our offense has really looked good, and it’s because of the passing they’re doing,” Pitino said. “It’s not Q’s absence, it’s everybody else passing the basketball better. Like Ray and Jaylen both have improved their passing and are looking inside to Mangok (Mathiang). You have to share the ball more when your guards are out and that’s been the key.

“I have always believed we are a good shooting team. Now, you all looked at me like I had two heads when I kept saying that we’re a good shooting team in practice, but the reason we weren’t a good shooting team in games is we didn’t pass the ball. When you pass the ball, you get to step in on the shot and passing makes you a better shooter.”

No Cardinal has shot any better in the three wins than sophomore Donovan Mitchell, who is averaging 25 ppg in that trio of games and shooting 57.8 percent (26-45), including 56 percent from 3-point range (14-25).

“Donvan is coming into games with an aggressive mindset,” forward Deng Adel says. “He’s worked hard on his jump shot. He’s making a lot of shots and helping us out in other areas too.”

Mitchell’s versatility was on full display against NC State. After scoring a career-high 29 points at Pitt, he got 28 Sunday and also contributed eight rebounds, five assists and two steals while playing a game-high 37 minutes. He carried his team in the opening minutes, scoring its first 14 points. He hit four 3-pointers and followed his only miss with a putback and finished the half 7-of-8 overall and 5-of-6 from long range.

“You just shoot the open shot,” Mitchell says. “I had a bunch of opportunities because my teammates were finding the open man and making the pass and I just let it go. I didn’t think about the last make or the last miss. I just kept shooting.”

Mitchell said UofL’s offense has improved because other players have raised their level of performance after Snider’s injury.

“That’s a credit to the emphasis Coach is putting on having two point guards out — moving the ball, getting as many touches as possible. We can’t replace Q’s point guard-making plays and his offensive ability, but we can have guys step up and fill the void and that’s what we’ve done.”

Mitchell has taken on more of the point guard responsibilities, with help from senior walk-on David Levitch and redshirt freshman Ryan McMahon. Levitch drew only the second first start of his career against NC State and played a solid 24 minutes, getting three assists, two steals and six points, with no turnovers.

“Donovan is getting a chance to play his natural position, which is point guard, and you always look for a silver lining in any injury,” Pitino said. “He’s got a chance to work at that, which I think will pay a huge dividend down the road. Q is going to go back into the starting lineup, but I think Donovan is on such a roll right now that he feels great about himself and we can give Q some relief sometimes. And David has never let me down one time since he’s been here. His hustle, I think, ignited the rest of the team.”

The Cards shot 50 percent, both overall (30-60) and from beyond the arc (12-24) and had 19 assists while connecting on at least 12 treys in back-to-back games for the first time since 2010. Defensively, UofL held the Wolfpack to 37.5 percent from the field and scored 22 points off 15 turnovers.

“I’m really, really pleased with this performance because we are getting better with each game,” Pitino said. “One thing I’m really proud of is these guys bring it every night. We can lose, but we bring it, and I’m really happy with that. Our guys are stepping up while we’re going through a tough stretch with major injuries, and when we get healthy it will really help us down the road.”

There is still no firm timetable for the return of Snider or Hicks. Pitino said he is being cautious with both players and Snider is still “a ways away.” The original forecast for Hicks, who was injured in the first half against Pitt, was that he would miss four to six weeks, but now Pitino has amended that to two to four weeks.

The Cards’ win boosted them into a three-way tie for third place in the ACC with Florida State and Notre Dame, both of whom lost twice this week. North Carolina, despite its upset loss at Miami, still leads the league at 7-2, while Virginia is at 6-2. UofL now has nearly a week off before traveling to Boston College (9-12, 2-6) for a 3 p.m. game Saturday. Then comes a crucial test on the road against Virginia two days later.

“It’s a crazy conference, it really is,” Pitino said, referring to the many surprising results. “One night you think North Carolina looks like it’s going to be them and Villanova in the (national championship game) again and then they play Miami (a 77-62 loss) and it’s never a game. It’s hard to make any sense out of anything.”

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