Despite playing without its two primary point guards, the Louisville basketball team still seemed to have things rolling in a way that they hadn’t in at least three years. While the rest of the top 25 – in particular the teams from the ACC – seemed unable to avoid the upset bug, the Cardinals were busy demolishing Pittsburgh, NC State and Boston College by a combined 103 points.
Then the first week of February did its thing again.
February 5, 2016 was one of the darkest days in Louisville basketball history, as a self-imposed postseason ban on the 2015-16 squad – which had just topped top-ranked North Carolina the same week – was announced. February 6, 2017 wasn’t nearly as bad, but it still threw an unexpected road block in the way of a team that had seemed to be playing its best basketball of the season.
“After we returned to Louisville, I boarded the team bus and told them how proud I was of them, but the most important thing now is to get their rest as we had an early morning practice and had to travel,” Pitino said in a statement released Monday morning. “For some reason, Mangok [Mathiang] and Deng [Adel] chose to break curfew and were out very late. This is an extremely big game for our basketball team, and it would be an understatement to say that I am extremely disappointed in both young men.”
Down to just seven scholarship players for their showcase road game against Virginia, Louisville put forth a tremendous first half effort to carry a 34-32 lead into the locker room. Tired legs and a lack of offensive firepower caught up to them in the second half, as the Cavaliers rolled to a 71-55 victory that looked eerily similar to the previous four they had rolled up on UofL.
After the game, Pitino was so upset with Mathiang – whose co-captain status he also stripped on Monday – that when his name was brought up in the second question of Pitino’s postgame press conference, he cut the reporter off and abruptly ended the Q&A session.
“I don’t – don’t mention his name to me,” he said. “That’s all I’ve got. Thank you.”
The actions of Mathiang, a fifth-year senior who has been in the program since the 2012-13 national championship season, seemed to particularly grate both Pitino and the fan base. It didn’t help that his absence on Monday night was felt more significantly than anyone else’s. Without Mathiang, Louisville was out-rebounded by Virginia by the staggering total of 38-19. The frontcourt trio of Anas Mahmoud, Jaylen Johnson and Matz Stockman combined to pull down one rebound.
The timing was also particularly poor for Mathiang himself, who was playing the best basketball of his lengthy career before this week’s suspension. Never known as much of an offensive threat, Mathiang had suddenly scored in double figures in four of his last five games. Included in that streak was a 13-point, 13-rebound effort against Florida State.
When you’re finally playing the way you’ve been wanting to for the last five years and there are only two months left in your college career, it would probably be in your best interest to avoid anything that might jeopardize that momentum. Just go to sleep.
That advice would have also done Adel well. Coming off a 19-point performance in the win over Boston College, the sophomore forward now finds himself in a position where he may be competing for his starting spot. That’s because his competition, freshman V.J. King, was the lone bright spot in Louisville’s loss at Virginia, scoring a career-high 24 points.
If there was one more positive to be taken away from the defeat, it was the way that Donovan Mitchell – the man who had that same day been promoted to co-captain in Mathiang’s place – sounded afterward.
“There’s a lot that needs to be said,” Mitchell said after the game. “I feel personally that we just played soft in the second half, and that’s unacceptable. We let them move us around, not make rotations. We let the crowd get to us with yelling and screaming. That’s unacceptable. The way we played in that second half can’t happen and won’t happen again.”
Stern words from a player whose evolution from puerile newcomer to veteran leader appears to be finished. Mitchell’s senior (former) captain and fellow sophomore would be wise to follow suit. VT