The Cards rallied to defeat Notre Dame. | Photo by Jeff Reinking, courtesy of UofL Athletics

Has Louisville lost its edge?

The UofL Cardinals remain ranked in the Associated Press Top 10 and finished the regular season with a hard-fought 71-64 victory over Notre Dame Saturday in the KFC Yum! Center — securing a victory it needed to claim a double bye in this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.

(Louisville plays the Duke-Clemson game winner Thursday at 2 p.m. in the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. ESPN; WHAS 84 AM radio.)

So, clutch Louisville remains. The Cardinals played better as the Notre Dame game wound into its final minutes. Louisville wasn’t hanging on. It was coming on. That’s good.

But it looks to this observer like Louisville (24-7, 12-6 in ACC) is winning on guts and determination, rather than speed and sparkle. Not quite as sharp as it was two months ago.

Quentin Snider | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

Not as much spring in the legs as in December, when the Cardinals’ big men swatted away Kentucky shots. Don’t be bringing that stuff in HERE!

Is the team worn down physically? Or mentally?

Or are we crazy?

Louisville has been playing at a high level since mid-November when it took on a string of highly ranked non-conference opponents — and has managed to keep the hammer down through a grueling schedule in the 16-team Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC may send as many as 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament

It’s certainly been a lot of work. And mental work, too.

The Cardinals lost their first two league games (to Virginia and Notre Dame) to begin in the cellar of the ACC. But they refused to stay on the shelf with the jams and preserves — instead rallying game by game to garner enough victories to move into the upper echelon of the conference. And thus earning a chance at the two-round bye available to the top four finishers in the ACC. That took plenty of determination.

Two weeks ago, as the season drew to a close, Louisville coach Rick Pitino was saying he felt his team would be all right fighting physical fatigue as the season wound to a conclusion. “I’m more worried about mental fatigue,” said Pitino.

And that would seem natural. Four months is a long time to hold a fine edge.

At this time of year you see some teams not totally unhappy to see the season finally be over. Not that they wish to lose, but not too sad when spring break finally arrives. It’s just a long time, with few breaks, and coaches know they have to constantly stir their teams to play heroically.

After beating Notre Dame Saturday, Pitino credited his three top scorers with leading the team to a triumph that required as much mental toughness as physical strength.

“I can’t say enough about Quentin Snider, Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel with the game on the line, how big they came up,” said Pitino. “I think the schedule we have played has prepared us for these moments.

“I knew it was an inexperienced team,” the coach continued, “but when you play Baylor, Wichita State, a healthy Indiana, Kentucky, Purdue, the Big Ten champions, and of course, the ACC meat grinder, you are prepared for these moments — the big moments where you have to make the shot.”

Carrying the team

Certainly Louisville got big shots from Snider, who hit four three-pointers in the second half against Notre Dame (23-8, 12-6) to help his team grab control of the game as it wound down to the final minutes. A couple were well-defended, and one Snider let go when just the tiniest seam of opportunity appeared. No hesitation.

Deng Adel nails a three. | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

In the final minute, Adel drilled a three to ice the victory. Mitchell led all scorers with 20 points, and fifth-year senior Mangok Mathiang, the only player left from UofL’s 2013 national championship team, turned in a career best 18 points, with 11 rebounds. Mathiang scored on both right- and left-handed hook shots.

But those four are carrying the Cardinals now. Tall forward Ray Spalding has had more on moments than off lately, but he remains inconsistent. As does 7-foot center Anas Mahmoud. As also are forwards Jaylen Johnson and V.J. King. The reserve guards are no longer scoring.

So that’s a big problem and a symptom, we imagine, of physical fatigue.

Not so much mental.

The problem was on display early in the Notre Dame game — and both teams had it. Notre Dame ran an offense designed to go strictly for three-point shots. It consistently got the ball inside to pass it back out beyond the arc for excellent open three attempts — and missed.

Louisville, which began the season as perhaps the nation’s top team defending against the three-point shot, could not get to the Notre Dame shooters. Both teams seemed a step slow. After half of the first half, both were 4-15 shooting.

Admittedly the opening minutes of most games are usually the lowest scoring, as teams search for how they will score — and do much better as the game rolls along.

Jaylen Johnson goes up for two. | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

But here, Notre Dame’s three-point shooters were getting their shots, but not hitting them. And Louisville’s three-point stoppers were slow to get into defense.

In horse racing, the better horses can run fast all the time. But they do go in and out of form. Sometimes not as sharp. Not as quick out of the gate, or to fire through a hole. The good ones still manage to put their nose on the wire first in photo finishes. But they don’t always dance along to easy triumphs.

And that’s kind of the way Louisville looks to this observer, who has seen as many seasons of basketball as horse races.

But you can tell Pitino is a believer.

“This is a team that can accomplish anything, because of their attitude — and we’ll see what happens in the tournament,” said Pitino.

Think he’s talking about the NCAA tournament.

Not letting any Ivy grow under their feet

So the last thing Louisville would need right now, we’d say, is to run off to Brooklyn to play games in an all-but-meaningless ACC tournament. It is unlikely three victories and a tourney title would advance Louisville very far in the seeding for the NCAA, which begins next week. And a quick loss probably would not drop the Cardinals in the seedings. Truth be told, we imagine the NCAA has already got the top end of its tournament brackets pretty much set. The tourneys matter most to the fringe hopers.

Yet the leagues love the conference tourneys.

This week the Ivy League, long the last holdout against a season-ending tourney, will bring its top four finishers in league play to the Penn Palestra in Philadelphia. Both men and women.

Why?

Because the Ivies miss the excitement they see the other leagues enjoying.

Previously, the Ivy League winner took an automatic bid to the NCAA. This year the men’s champion is Princeton, which holds a perfect 12-0 record. But now the Tigers will need to capture the Ivy tourney. It appears Columbia, of all schools, might make the Ivy tourney, with a chance (not a strong one, but a chance nonetheless) to make the NCAA tourney for the first time in 49 years.

And it is not just about the upset. It’s also the razzle-dazzle, as Columbia’s women’s coach Megan Griffith explained to New York Times writer Seth Beckman.

No sleep till Brooklyn for coach Rick Pitino. | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

“The March Madness feel is something that’s been missing in the Ivy League,” said Griffith. “Everybody gets that exposure now.”

And with the Ivy League congregating in the Penn Palestra, the teams soak up atmosphere from one of college basketball’s most famous halls. A cathedral of basketball, as one Ivy League athletic director calls it.

Meanwhile, the Big East Conference, Louisville’s previous league, will hold its 35th consecutive tourney in Madison Square Garden.

The ACC wants to be in New York, too. The ACC will bring its long famous tourney this year in the shiny new Barclay Center in Brooklyn — the first time it’s been staged north of the Mason-Dixon line.

And don’t forget the Big Ten, which steps out of the pasture next season to play its tournament in Madison Square Garden, the week before the Big East. To do that, the Big Ten will cut its conference season by a week. (Isn’t there anybody left to roll over in their grave in Bloomington or East Lansing?)

But it says here that while all that is fine for some teams, the likes of Louisville, Villanova, Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, Duke, North Carolina … they don’t need it.

A purer outcome would be for the conference tournaments to be abolished. Instead, use the same dates to invite every team to play in a full NCAA — like the old Indiana State High School Tournament (from which the NCAA was originally copied).

That would be fair. And the NCAA could even go way out on a limb of fairness and end its seedings, which are totally unfair. The way it is now, the best teams are matched against the weakest to ensure the marquee names advance along the television schedule. You know, the idea of seeding began in country club tennis, so it bears no relation whatsoever to fair.

But ours is a plaint not heard.

An idea ahead of its time

College basketball (and UofL) fan Alan Cheek has a very good suggestion to address the problem of fairness for the NCAA tournament.

“What the NCAA does very well is seed the teams by strength,” says Cheek. “They could do that, placing 1-16 seeds in each of four regionals — then drawing for the brackets of each regional. That would give the underdogs a fighting chance. No more automatically throwing the 16 seed to the No. 1 wolf.”

Hey, good idea, Al. We’ll pass it along to the NCAA like Christmas. Write it up in a letter to Santa Claus and send it up the chimney in smoke.

Coming soon: Selections for the office NCAA pool

Next week: With the ACC and other conference tourneys out of their next-to-meaningless ways, we’ll take a look at the real March Madness — including offering a few NCAA surprise picks, sometimes referred to as Bracket Busters. The spirit of Butler and Northern Iowa.

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