Friday, January 22, 2010

Cards Walk the Plank in Newark

Last night's Louisville-Seton Hall game was huge for both teams. The Cards came in on a 2 game losing streak, while this year's much-improved Pirate outfit had just 1 conference win to their credit, despite giving teams like Syracuse and West Virginia all they could handle at home. Louisville's trip to the Prudential Center was a glaring reminder of just how far they have fallen this year, just how much they lost from the previous season, and just how much it's going to take to make a run at a tournament berth. Ever since Rick Pitino walked on campus in 2001, their has been a certain intensity to his teams, especially on the defensive end. The suffocating full-court press and quick rotation on defense has fallen by the wayside this season. No longer are Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith able to watch quick guards blow by them, only to have Earl Clark or David Padgett send their shots several rows deep in the stands. No longer can Samardo Samuels play soft on the interior, or be a step slow on his rotations, because Terrence Williams isn't there to come over from the weak side and deny what would have been easy looks at the basket had he not been there. This year, the Cards are surrendering almost 70 points a game to their opponents, and to fans like myself, that number seems woefully inadequate to describe the deficiencies on the defensive end. Like most Cards fans, I'm used to seeing the boys give up about 55 points a game, swallow up guards with their full-court press, and push opposing offenses away from the basket and into challenged shots. This year has been a sobering wake up call. As Pitino said after the game, not one Louisville defender is capable of defending off the dribble, and this causes the team to be in constant flux, rotating and rotating to more and more open shooters. The problem is, the team lacks the athleticism and quickness of last year's squad, and is too slow to keep up with any team that moves the ball well around the perimeter. The intensity and sense of desperation that used to strike fear into opposing offenses is gone, and with it goes the chances of a top-tier finish in the Big East or of a deep run in the postseason (unless we're talking about the NIT). Some quick-hitters from the game last night:

-Seton Hall became the 3rd consecutive team to shoot over 50% from the floor against Louisville. Last year, and in years past, there weren't 3 teams that did that over an entire season.
-Although the Pirates undoubtedly came out scorching, when they did miss they usually came up with their own rebound, grabbing over half of their missed shots over the course of the game. The inability to hold teams to one shot per possession and deny second chance opportunities has been a glaring weakness of the this year's team. Clark and Williams are gone, and although he has improved his pursuit of the ball and his blocking out, Samardo Samuels is nowhere near the kind of rebounder he needs to be for this team to go anywhere.
-The Cards were 14 of 25 (56%) from the line last night, including 1 for 3 performances from Sosa, Smith, Samuels, and Reggie Delk. This horse has been beaten well past dead, but just a few of those misses turned into makes changes this game completely.
-Jeremy Hazell lit up the Cards again, making 9 of his 12 shots from the floor, 3 of 6 from behind the arc. Granted, a couple were prayers that found their way into the net, but the interior and help defense has to get on him quicker when he makes his way to the basket. Too many easy buckets for the Pirates' star.
-Louisville had 9 assists on 28 made field goals, including just 2 from Sosa. The ball movement and execution in the half court has to improve dramatically for this team to do anything this year.

All that being said, there are a lot of bright spots and silver linings in this year's team, and a lot of hope for the future. Peyton Siva continues to improve. He is learning to play more in control and set up his teammates, and he made several great decisions in traffic last night. Rakeem Buckles is raw, but when he reins in his offensive game, the kid is going to be a beast. The freshman Mike Marra scored 10 points in 19 minutes of action, and looks more and more comfortable shooting the ball. However, for me, many questions remain. Why does Terrence Jennings only get 12 minutes a game? He is the longest and best shot-blocking defender on the team, and scored 8 points in 8 minutes last night. Kyle Kuric had been averaging about 20 minutes a game in the previous 3 contests, but never came off the bench last night. He is, for my money, the best pure rebounder on the team despite being just 6'4. Surely we could have used him on the boards last night, and maybe he could have cleaned up a few of the missed opportunities that led to easy 2nd chance points for the Hall. I will hopefully be interviewing Kyle soon, and we'll see what he has to say about this year's team and what it needs to do to be a player in the conference and NCAA tourney race. For now, let's hope the Cards can rebound and play well in an absolute must-win game against Cincinnati on Sunday.

And don't think I forgot the clearly blown call at the end of the game. Jerry Smith hits a 3 with .7 seconds left, and with the ref clearly counting off the seconds, Keon Lawrence steps about 2 feet into the court, and with no call from the ref, reestablishes himself behind the end line. It was a horrible call on a clear violation, and would have given the Cards a chance at a game-tying or even game-winning shot.

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