'Deplorable' defense at Pitt, other flaws raise questions about Cards


LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - It's always risky to read too much into either a win or a defeat by a college basketball team, but there are good losses and there are bad losses.

And Louisville's 89-86 overtime shocker at Pittsburgh Wednesday night definitely landed in the bad category  -- but not only because it came against one of the worst teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It's obvious that the empty trip to Petersen Events Center, where UofL hadn't lost since 2010, doesn't portend well for the Cardinals' chances in the upcoming eight games against the six ranked ACC teams, starting at No. 12 North Carolina (12-3, 2-0) Saturday.

More worrisome to coach Chris Mack is that the Cards (10-5, 1-1) are making the same mistakes they did a month ago and have even added a few other areas of concern.

UofL is still inconsistent on offense, suffering through too many scoring droughts, and still hasn't figured out a way to stop drives into the paint by opposing guards. Any similarity between Mack's pack line defense and Virginia's suffocating version is strictly coincidental.

Pitt's freshman guards, Trey McGowens (33 points) and Xavier Johnson (21), got into the paint almost at will, and when they didn't, they wiggled free for 3-pointers, combining to hit 6-of-11. A temporary switch to a 1-3-1 defense in the first half like the one Mack tried against Kentucky failed to hinder the dynamic duo.

Being unable to stop penetration by creative, skillful guards is a serious problem to have in any league, but particularly one as loaded with high-quality backcourt players as the ACC. Miami's trio of guards scored 56 points on 20-of-37 shooting.

Asked what could be done, and quickly, to remedy the situation, Mack indicated that no answers are forthcoming.

"If I had an answer, we wouldn't be sitting on 90 points that we gave up," Mack said. "We've got to figure something out."

Slow starts have been another shortcoming lately. Louisville has now fallen behind in the first half of four consecutive games -- against Robert Morris, UK, Miami and now Pitt -- trailing in halftime of each. Then there's the Cards' shaky ballhandling. They hadn't been a high-turnover team, but they also hadn't had to contend with as much on-the-ball pressure as Pitt applied. They will now, after scouts watch their 18 turnovers that resulted in 29 Pitt points. UofL, on the other hand, got just 12 points on 12 Panther turnovers, including only four in the first half.

"Our mental toughness is lacking right now," Mack said. "And it needs to change. We're in too tough of a league to continue to wallow in the highs and lows of a game, of practice, of how I'm playing individually. That right now is hurting our team."

Mack says he wants his team to play dirty, but not in the way that word connotates.

"Bad night for our team. I thought Jeff’s guys were a lot harder-playing than our team,” Mack said. “They came out and played a lot harder than we did. They had their way with us. Whether we switched, whether we hard-hedged, our defense was deplorable. Until our team plays with a little bit more dirt under its fingernails instead of playing the way we did tonight defensively, then' we'll get more ass-kicking in this league."

That certainly is a realistic possibility at noon Saturday at North Carolina. The Heels, which clobbered Pitt 85-60 four days before the Panthers beat UofL, are second to Duke in the ACC in scoring at 90 points per game. Complicating Mack's task is a lack of preparation time. The Cards had a mandatory day off Thursday, leaving only Friday to get ready for a team it has never beaten in Chapel Hill.

Aside from the Top-25 matchups, it's fair to speculate that the Cards' games against bottom tier Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Boston College will be more challenging than they looked prior to Wednesday's shoddy performance. UofL also meets Pittsburgh again, on Jan. 26 in the KFC Yum! Center, which should provide a good measuring stick of how much, if any, the Cards have progressed over 2 1/2 weeks.

If there was one consolation associated with the disheartening loss to Pitt, it was that it shouldn't hurt UofL's NCAA Tournament resume' to any large degree. It rates as a road loss to a Quadrant 2 opponent, the second-highest tier in the selection committee's system for measuring the quality of games.

For now, though, with numerous problems to fix and the Tar Heels looming, that is little comfort for Mack and Co.

Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.




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