March 18, 2008

Louisville Cardinals: Cards enter the tournament on a downtick, looking to regain their mojo

PHOTOS BY MARTY PEARLDavid Padgett: photo by marty pearl Louisville center David Padgett draws a charge as sophomore forward Earl Clark goes up to block the shot against Villanova, a Senior Day game the Cards won at Freedom Hall.Earl Clark was peaking. The Pittsburgh Panthers had double- and triple-teamed senior Louisville center David Padgett all night, and when they figured out that collapsing on the post left a bunch of cold shooters to jack, Clark was left to go off. The unassuming post presence — whose all-around game looks more pro by the day — was the Cards’ only player without a Pitt equivalent. He tacked 19 points and nine rebounds, six of which were offensive.A minute into overtime and down two, it was obvious where the Cards should look. Clark was still getting position on the block. Pitt was still favoring Padgett like a bad ankle. Terrence Williams, U of L’s high-energy small forward whose perimeter game is sketchy, had just forced a dumb shot. The camera shifted to Rick Pitino on the sideline. The Look. Ice. Where the hell did T-Will’s head go? Pitt slowed, tried to work the ball inside, but Clark snuck in a hand. Edgar Sosa scooped up the loose ball. Here we go. One play. Even the score, then take control with defense. Louisville — one of the hottest teams in the country last month, and the conference’s third best in field-goal defense — should determine things. For the first time I can remember, Clark was all emotion, pumping his fist and hollering for the ball. Point guard Andre McGee passed to Padgett, double-teamed. Clark moved on the weak side, got position on the low block as they rotated the ball to Williams on the wing. He faked a three and drove, drawing Clark’s man. Clark bounced out near the free-throw line. He was open. This would be a dunk. Just a soft pass from Williams and —What? No! Williams forced another absurd shot, this time leaning into the defender, playing for a foul instead of points. Big miss. No call, no surprise — with 3:21 left in OT of a Big East tournament game in Madison Square Garden, you’re not getting that call. It was the play that turned the game in the Panthers’ favor: Next came a cheap foul by Sosa, two free throws for Pitt, a four-point lead and momentum that never crested. Pitt rode that wave to the Big East title two days later. Pitt’s defenders were not denying Clark the way they were Padgett or sophomore center Derrick Caracter, who also had a big game. Clark got open, played his role like he was supposed to. In what has been a recurrent and critical weakness in this team, Louisville did not execute in the clutch. The loss, its second close one in a row, didn’t hurt the Cards’ NCAA tournament draw: Louisville marches in a 3-seed in the modest East regional, facing a 25-8 Boise State team on Friday night. If things play out as expected, Louisville would face Oklahoma and Tennessee before arriving to face overall No. 1 seed North Carolina — who, remember, the Cards could’ve had a shot at in the Las Vegas Invitational, had they overtaken BYU — in the Elite 8.But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Two weeks ago, Louisville looked to be streaking into March like banshees. The sudden lack of mojo is slightly troubling. Rick Pitino hugs Padgett: photo by marty pearl Coach Rick Pitino hugs Padgett during post-game Senior Day ceremonies in Freedom Hall March 2.Covering Louisville’s last two home games was a charm for any writer with a flair for the epic. This team had overcome injuries to its two most valuable seniors, the suspension of its most hyped player, the resultant ugly start and as difficult a conference schedule as any team in the country. It went 9-2 after its wake-up loss at Connecticut, including a fat 8-0 in February. Louisville owned rights to some chatter, and both games were fine-tuned maulings. The post-game press conferences were light, and Pitino was funny; inside the locker room, guys joked and smiled with each other and reporters. As the collective consciousness seemed to overlook the fact that the season wasn’t over, the players retained the clarity Pitino has taught them to bring up whenever the press asks. “We knew it was going to be tough, but we knew we could do it,” Padgett told a crush of reporters in the locker room Feb. 28, after the Cards beat Notre Dame. A reporter had just asked about the improbability of following through on Pitino’s clarion call for the Cards to win 8 of their last 10. “We did the same thing last year when our back was against the wall. I think we learned a big lesson from that Connecticut game as far as taking challenged shots, and what it means to move the ball on offense and take good shots. We really tried to learn a lesson from that loss.”Undeniably they did, and most of them haven’t forgotten it — save Williams, whose lapse in the early exit from the Big East tournament last week was the defining mistake among quite a few. The last two games — the team’s first back-to-back losses since December’s to Dayton and Purdue — have been good ones, as Pitino pointed out in a snap at a reporter after the Pitt game. “Obviously you don’t follow basketball very well,” he replied to a question about entering the NCAA tournament with consecutive losses. “Because if you think it’s bad to lose at Georgetown in a hard-fought game and to Pittsburgh in overtime, then you don’t follow basketball very much. I think they’re two terrific basketball teams that played better than us down the stretch.”More troubling than that is the late-season disappearance of balance in the team’s scoring. When Louisville beat Notre Dame 90-85 at Freedom Hall, it shot 53 percent from the field. Five players were in double figures, and eight scored. With the exception of Padgett’s 26-point effort, the average individual scoring was about 9 points per player. fast break: photo by marty pearl Point guard Andre McGee (33), small forward Terrence Williams (1) and guard Preston Knowles (2) prepare to execute the fast break against ’Nova.Against Georgetown, Louisville showed the first sign in weeks that its furious offensive output was grinding. The team shot 19-46 from the field for 41 percent; it was 4-18 from three, and guard Jerry Smith, who’d been a lock from behind the arc since an early season slump, went 0-6. Eight players scored, three in double figures. Other than those three, though, nobody had more than 6 points. Last Thursday against Pitt, Louisville made 27 of its 72 shots (37 percent). Four guys were in double figures; eight guys got on the scoreboard. The unsettling thing: Nobody shorter than 6-foot-8 scored more than seven points. “We’ve just gotta work it inside and out, run everything through David,” Smith said after the Notre Dame game. Problem is, that doesn’t work when your four premiere guards go 3 for 23 from the field and 2 for 12 from three, like they did against Pittsburgh. Conversely, the poor performance from the short guys left Caracter and Juan Palacios to emerge from mediocrity and offer up major points, rebounds and — essentially this time of year — minutes. Palacios mentioned something in the locker room after the Cards beat Villanova on Senior Day at Freedom Hall a couple weeks ago that stuck: The critics will be up with you and down on you, and building a team is a longer process than the crucible of modern college basketball will anymore permit.Yes, Louisville’s shooting has been off the past two games. The only way the public can judge a team is by its past performances, so you can’t blame anybody, really, for being anxious now about a Cardinal team that two weeks ago seemed destined to make a substantial tournament run. They still can; in fact, it’s likely, given the way this team has responded to adversity this season.After all, what Louisville squad can you remember to play well in the driver’s seat? This is an underdog town with an underdog team.  Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com