Without Chris Jones, Louisville’s Fatal Flaw is Tough to Mask

Posted by CD Bradley on February 24th, 2015

Louisville’s first game of the post-Chris Jones era looked a lot like the the last one in which the senior point guard suited up. The Cardinals struggled to score, fell behind, went on a second-half run and found a way to eke out a nail-biting win. The question is whether they can replicate that outcome when the challenges get tougher as February turns into March.

The Dismissal of Chris Jones (USA Today Images)

The Dismissal of Chris Jones Leaves Louisville in a Tough Spot (USA Today Images)

Jones was dismissed from the team on Sunday, the day after hitting the crucial shot in a home win over Miami and the day before a road trip to ACC also-ran Georgia Tech. The University of Louisville police released a statement about an hour before tip-off that Jones had threatened to “smack TF (the f—) out of” an on-again, off-again girlfriend via text message on February 17, the day before the Cardinals lost at Syracuse. Jones was suspended for that game and did not make the trip with the team. He was reinstated the next day, played against Miami on Saturday, and then was formally dismissed from the team on Sunday. The Courier-Journal reported that Jones was also involved in a separate incident but the university declined to release a report, citing the ongoing investigation. “I feel awful for the young man, but unfortunately we just have to move on,” head coach Rick Pitino said about Jones after Monday’s 52-51 win. “Mistakes were made, and sometimes in life you’ve got to pay for those. […] There’s no way he’s coming back. It’s over.”

Pitino and the Cardinal players said that the team’s freshmen will have to grow up quickly, something the group has yet to do this year. The Cardinals have made it to 22-6 (10-5 ACC) without much help from its rookies, depending almost entirely on four veterans: seniors Jones and Wayne Blackshear, junior Montrezl Harrell, and sophomore Terry Rozier. That didn’t change much on Monday night, with Rozier, Blackshear and Harrell combining for 40 of the team’s 52 points. Freshman point guard Quentin Snider added six points, four assists and two steals, and freshman center Chinanu Onuaku contributed five rebounds and huge block in the final seconds to secure the win.

Rozier, the Cardinals’ leading scorer, has been mired in a terrible slump, which continued through a 1-of-7 first half last night. He finally found his stroke at the team’s most desperate point — down 13 points, the enigmatic sophomore hit consecutive threes to ignite an 11-0 run, ending up with 18 points in the second half on 7-of-12 shooting. “I believe in myself; I don’t think some of my fans do, but that’s OK. I’ve gotten a lot of tweets recently. Everybody’s doubting us. You see it on ESPN,” Rozier said. “We’ve got to come together. We’ve got to get the job done.” Harrell, who talked Pitino into leaving Onuaku in during the final defensive possession, said, “It shows that even when we’re at our lowest point, we can still band together, and we can still come out with a great victory. Everybody is counting us out. Just wait until March comes around.”

It's Tough to Doubt Pitino, But His Team Simply Cannot Score (USA Today Images)

It’s Tough to Doubt Pitino, But His Team Simply Cannot Score (USA Today Images)

March, as Pitino has said many times over the years, is when Louisville is judged. It’s also when flaws get exposed, and this team has a big one: Louisville can’t score. It failed to score at least 1.0 point per possession for the fourth straight game on Monday, dropping to 103rd in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. That mark nears the territory of Pitino’s 2012 team, which finished 116th in offensive efficiency even after running off eight straight improbable wins to reach the Final Four. That team also happened to boast the best defense in the country and the best of Pitino’s tenure at the school. This year’s defense, while ranking a strong sixth nationally, is prone to lapses unheard of in recent years — for example, Georgia Tech’s last five field goals of the first half came at the rim, largely unchallenged, accounting for a 10-3 run. Jones was the best perimeter defender on the team and among the best on-ball defenders in college basketball, so it’s difficult to imagine the Cardinals’ defense improving in his absence. Given the tests ahead, including home games next week against Notre Dame and Virginia leading into the loaded ACC Tournament, they will have to find a way to do just that.

Given his track record, though, it’s hard to count out Pitino. “I just told them, ‘We’re a totally different basketball team now.’ Everybody’s got to play. Everybody’s got to mature and everybody’s got to play.”

CD Bradley (69 Posts)

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