Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Two Games, and That’s About it. When college basketball gives you two good games, you watch them. That’s what ESPN’s Big Monday night promises to serve up over the next month or so, and on evenings when there’s literally nothing else of note going on, you study those two games from every angle, every statistical nuance – and if you’re me, you write about them. So if you’re interested in what happened when Pittsburgh visited Louisville and Kansas embarked on its first ever conference road trip to West Virginia, and not much else, you’ll find this post meets that interest quite well. Or maybe you’ll reject my analysis and stop reading altogether. It’s cool; I’ll never begrudge a critical approach. However you go about it, take comfort in the fact that the rest of the week, leading into Saturday’s massive Indiana-Michigan game (and that other football game being played Sunday afternoon), promises more enticing match-ups.
Your Watercooler Moment. A Win Is A Win Is A Win.
With the three-game losing streak behind them, the Cardinals can look forward to the Big East stretch run (photo credit: Getty Images).
Using the term “must-win” for teams who fell out of the No. 1 spot in AP Poll just two weeks ago feels wildly irrational. Seasons aren’t won and lost in January, and Louisville still withdraws the right to whip out one of the most fearsome defenses of the 21st century, a deeply stocked frontcourt, a stable of effective complementary pieces, and a Final Four pedigree to boot. But if the Cardinals didn’t need a win Monday night against Pittsburgh, per se, it was at the very least strongly advised that they get one. Lest we forget that just over a week ago, Louisville – long owners of an historically efficient defense and burgeoning National Player of the Year point guard – was on top of the college basketball world. And not just in every major poll of note; the Cardinals were the national title favorite flavor of the week. The week that followed, which included three consecutive losses to Syracuse, at Villanova and at Georgetown, was not what everyone had in mind when they pegged Louisville as the nation’s best team. After all, national championship favorites just don’t lose three in a row. Louisville’s plunge in the polls (Monday’s AP Poll had the Cardinals ranked #12) reflected this fallout, but the Cardinals had a pretty favorable opportunity on their hands Monday night.
That’s when the efficiency-buoyant Panthers, winners of four Big East games in a row, traveled to the Yum! Center to pour salt on Louisville’s three-loss wound. Any reasonable observer would have looked at this game, noted Pittsburgh’s recent improvements, the shoulder injury to Wayne Blackshear and suspension of Kevin Ware, and surmised the Panthers had a legitimate shot to not only hang tight with Louisville but seize a huge road opportunity against a confidence-bereft team in the midst of a three-game skid. Pittsburgh nearly got there. The Panthers’ stormed back to cut an 11-point deficit to just two inside the final minute, and were it not for a few clutch free throws from Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith, Jamie Dixon’s team could well have walked out with a massive win. Final outcome aside, Pittsburgh played to its adjusted, per-possession bona fides – the Panthers entered Monday ranked seventh in KenPom’s ratings – and that’s something we’ve been waiting to see for much of this season. Poor free throw shooting (the Panthers finished 3-of-12 from the stripe) was the difference. Louisville’s performance was hardly the work of the Final Four contender so widely bandied about just over week ago, and that’s something we may not see from Rick Pitino’s team until March. The point is, the Cardinals picked up where they left off before becoming No. 1 – they won a basketball game, and they did it against a veritably good team.
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