Ashton Hagans: The ‘whole team’ was ready for Louisville
After a one-year hiatus, the University of Louisville is again NCAA Tournament-bound.
The Cardinals received an at-large bid to the big dance on Sunday night, drawing the No. 7 seed in the East Region. They’ll play No. 10 seed Minnesota in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday. Duke is the No. 1 seed in Louisville’s bracket and Michigan State is No. 2.
In his first year at the helm as he navigates the program back from the fallout of the NCAA recruiting scandal that cost former coach Rick Pitino and athletics director Tom Jurich their jobs, Louisville Coach Chris Mack steered the Cardinals through an up-and-down campaign.
In his first NCAA Tournament game at Louisville, Mack will face Pitino’s son, Minnesota Coach Richard Pitino.
Louisville was bounced from the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament by North Carolina, 83-70, in the quarterfinals to round out its resume’ at 20-13 overall. The Cardinals went 10-8 in ACC play to finish tied for sixth. But at one point, it looked like the upstart Cards would contend for the ACC regular-season title.
Louisville was riding high in late January. An 82-54 win at Wake Forest capped a six-game win streak and moved the Cardinals to 15-5 overall. They rose to No. 15 in the Associated Press Top 25, their highest ranking of the year. Then, the bottom fell out.
After dispatching the Demon Deacons, Louisville lost three of its next four games, with the most stinging blow coming on Feb. 12. The Cardinals appeared to be on their way to a season-defining victory over top-ranked Duke in the Yum Center. But Louisville blew a 23-point second-half lead, falling to the Blue Devils in the closing seconds, 71-69.
Despite entering the NCAA Tournament having lost five of their last seven games, Mack thinks the grind of the ACC schedule has prepared the Cardinals to bounce back and make a March run.
“I told these guys in the locker room that we have played the best teams in the country,” Mack said after Louisville’s loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament. “(The ACC) beats you up ... It’s the best conference in the country, in my opinion ... Hopefully our guys understand that when we do the things that we can control, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win against anybody.”
The Cardinals have most definitely been tempered by one of the roughest roads in the country this season. Louisville played the third-most difficult schedule according to opponents’ winning percentage, and the Cardinals collected four wins against ranked teams.
Louisville is fueled by breakout star Jordan Nwora, who leads the team in scoring (17.2 points per game) and rebounding (7.5). As a freshman, Nwora averaged 5.7 points per game off the bench. This year, the 6-foot-7 forward from Buffalo, N.Y., was voted to the All-ACC Third Team and was named the conference’s most improved player. He scored 24 points in Louisville’s win over Notre Dame in the second round of the conference tournament.
Louisville’s tournament opener
No. 7 seed Louisville vs. No. 10 seed Minnesota
What: NCAA Tournament East Regional
When: 12:15 p.m. EDT Thursday
Where: Des Moines, Iowa
Records: Louisville 20-13, Minnesota 21-13
Nickname: Golden Gophers
School colors: Gold and Maroon
Head coach: Richard Pitino (111-91 in six seasons at Minnesota and 129-105 in seven seasons overall)
Conference: Big Ten
NCAA berth: At large (Minnesota finished seventh in the Big Ten with a 9-11 conference record)
All-time series: Minnesota leads 3-2 (Most recent meeting was 2014)
Common opponents with Louisville this season: Minnesota lost to Boston College (68-56) and Michigan State (79-55) and beat Indiana (84-63).
Other notable games this season: MInnesota beat Pac-12 regular-season champion Washington, 68-66, on a neutral court, Big Ten regular-season co-champ Purdue at home, 73-69, and won at Wisconsin, 59-52.