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Pitino comes close to dismissing Boston College as Cards eye Monday ACC showdown with Virginia

By Russ Brown
KyForward columnist

LOUISVILLE — In a way, during his press conference Friday afternoon, Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino violated one of his profession’s most sacred commandments: Thou shalt take one game at a time.

Louisville’s next opponent is lowly Boston College (9-14, 2-8 ACC) Saturday afternoon at 3 o’clock in the Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and Pitino touched on the Eagles, giving them the obligatory compliments despite their obvious ineptness.

But he spent much of his weekend preview talking about and readily answering questions about UofL’s second foe in the three-day stretch in a game that could go a long way toward determining the ACC regular season champion. That would be No. 9/11 Virginia (17-4, 7-2), which will host the No. 6/7 Cardinals (18-4, 6-3) in the tipoff to ESPN’s Big Monday at 7 p.m. in John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va.

Virginia is currently a half-game behind league-leading North Carolina (20-4, 8-2), while UofL is tied with Florida State (19-4, 7-3) in the loss column, a half-game ahead of Notre Dame, Syracuse and Duke. This is the Cards’ next-to-last road game against a top contender — they’ll travel to North Carolina on Feb. 22 — so a win would be a huge boost to their title hopes. That, of course, is assuming they don’t stumble at BC, which isn’t likely.

Two road victories, especially one against Virginia, would also significantly raise UofL’s NCAA Tournament seeding profile.

Nearly a week off between last Sunday’s rout of NC State and Saturday’s game at BC has allowed Pitino to get in some early work on Virginia instead of having to shoehorn all preparation into Sunday.

“What you try to do without pointing it out too much to the players is to, at the end of the last two segments of an eight-segment practice, go over what the other team will do,” Pitino says. “I think players figure it out, but you have to do it that way sometimes because the day before games you’ve got to be real careful, not only with your legs, but that you don’t get anyone hurt in that situation. So we’re prepared for both of these games going into it.”

In both games, Louisville will again be without starting point guard Quentin Snider, who suffered a strained hip flexor in a 78-69 win over Duke on Jan. 14 and has missed the past four contests. Pitino said tests this week have shown that the injury hasn’t healed. He said Snider could return for UofL’s home game against Miami on Feb. 11, but that is “a possibility, not a probability.”

“We’re going to get through these two games,” Pitino said. “He’s shooting, he’s moving.”

Surprisingly, the Cards haven’t seemed to miss Snider or his backup, Tony Hicks, who is sidelined with a broken hand. They’re 3-1 in Snider’s absence and have put together their three best offensive performances of this, or almost any other, season. That’s been due in part to outstanding performances by sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell and senior forward/center Mangok Mathiang.

Mitchell had 28 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two steals against NC State after getting a career-high 29 points at Pittsburgh to earn the NCAA.com national player of the week honors. Mitchell’s ascension actually started before Snider’s injury — he has averaged 19.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.9 steals over the last nine games. Mathiang, meanwhile, has averaged 12.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and shot 68 percent in his last four outings.

“The only thing that surprises me is the way we played without the two point guards,” Pitino said. “That’s kind of surprising. But I think there are three or four reasons for that; which one it is I’m not sure, it’s an educated guess. One is the ball’s in the hands of your best player more, Donovan Mitchell, and he creates more with the ball in his hands.

“The second thing is players know that two valuable assets are missing, so they’ve got to pick up their play. Guys like Mango and David Levitch. And three, they realize this is the dog days of January, February and you’ve really got to pick up your play to put yourself in a good situation come tournament time. Which one it is, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a collection of all of them.”

Probably so. Plus the fact that all three wins — and UofL’s last six — have come against teams at the bottom of the ACC standings, a trend that would continue with a win at BC, which is fighting Clemson, Pitt and NC State to stay out of the conference cellar.

After Virginia beat Louisville for the fourth time in five games, 61-53, on Dec. 28 in the KFC Yum! Center, Pitino called the Cavaliers the Cards’ “kryptonite.” He has also compared playing Virginia, with its suffocating defense and patient offense that milks the shot clock on almost every possession, to undergoing a root canal.

Last season, the Cavs defeated UofL twice by double digits, 63-47 and 68-46. In the first meeting this year, Virginia led from wire-to-wire, jumping to a 16-2 lead, forcing Pitino to call two timeouts in a span of 100 seconds, and leading by as many as 21 points in the second half. The Cavs shot 49 percent and held UofL to 43.2 percent, including just 2-of-14 from 3-point range.

The Cards had no double figure scorers.

Pitino said UofL’s ability to drive and dish and then hit perimeter shots, as well as keeping Virginia off the free throw line, will be keys to reversing the earlier outcome. The Cards have been a poor 3-point shooting team for much of the season, but have made 24-of-46 (52.1 percent) in their last two games. In their last three games against Virginia, however, they are 10-of-47 (21.3 percent) from beyond the arc.

“I think we’ve played them wrong in certain sets,” Pitino says. “We’re trying to run our sets and figure out, okay, they’re going to take away A and B, let’s go to C and D options. And really, when you play Virginia, it’s a matter of creating ball movement, creating player movement and making shots. It’s not about an offense you’re going to run. It’s going to come down to individual players breaking them down and making shots off the pass. It’s not about an offensive set.”

Pitino said that’s the strategy then-No. 1 Villanova used in edging Virginia 61-59 on a last-second shot last Sunday in Philadelphia.

“I would venture to say that in 90 percent of the game, Villanova didn’t run one play against them, but they have guys that can flat out beat you off the bounce and that’s the only way to do it,” Pitino says. “You suck the defenders in and make the pass. So you’re going to have to shoot great to beat Virginia. If you shoot great you’ve got a chance to win.”

Before playing UofL, Virginia also has a Saturday road game — at Syracuse (14-9, 6-4), which is 5-0 in ACC games in the Carrier Dome, including an 82-72 upset of then-No. 6 Florida State.

For most of the season, London Perrantes has been Virginia’s most dangerous offensive player, but lately the Cavs have shown more balance. Over the last seven games, four players have averaged in double figures.

“I think we’re evolving that way,” coach Tony Bennett says. “That balance is really important. I’m pleased because you have to have that. It’s hard when you’re a one-man band and everyone can key in. I think early on that was happening and I think guys are a little freer to shoot with confidence when the ball moves and to attack the lane and make some plays. I think that helps our offense a lot.”

While Virginia is next-to-last in scoring average per game (69.2) in the ACC, the Cavs lead the league in field goal percentage at 49.5 and are second in 3-point accuracy at 39.6. Combine that with the nation’s stingiest defense (53.4 ppg), and it’s obvious that Louisville is facing a major challenge.

“They are almost as efficient offensively as defensively,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said after the Cavs’ 71-48 win in Blacksburg Wednesday night. “So much is talked about what they do defensively, and rightfully so. They’re arguably just as efficient offensively.”

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