Louisville is on its way up.
Not just upward, as with a rising level of performance that has lifted the men’s basketball Cardinals (10-2) to six straight wins heading into a Friday clash with Kentucky (9-2) in Rupp Arena (1 p.m., CBS).
But upward, as in skyward — above the clouds, up in the stars — with tall comets Anas Mahmoud and Ray Spalding shaping the way the Cardinals play. The presence of the 7-foot Mahmoud and the 6-10 Spalding guarantees the game is going to be played up there.
That’s not a new thing for Louisville, of course. Playing above the rim stretches back decades.
But the team is really tall now — and seems just as athletic as ever.
Previous coach Rick Pitino began seeding the Louisville roster in tall timber some seasons ago. UofL’s 2013 NCAA championship team featured 6-11 shot-blocker Gorgui Dieng and 6-7 defensive patrolman Chane Behanan.
And a year ago Louisville was tall enough to dare Kentucky’s scorers to drive the lane, then stuffed their shots.
But under interim head coach David Padgett, Mahmoud and Spalding are not only dominating the air space above both baskets — but also up and down the floor. Louisville wants to soar, and it wants to pass fast.
Two plays in a game last week against Grand Canyon illustrated the idea:
In one sequence, Louisville worked the ball to Mahmoud for a dunk. A conventional big-man’s scoring play. But Grand Canyon pushed the ball up court quickly and one of its guards found a lane to the basket …
But Mahmoud, a guy who can move, caught up from behind and whacked the shot off the backboard — and straight into the hands of Spalding, rolling right to the right spot to field the carom more than a foot above the rim. Still above the hardwood, Spalding twilled the ball in his long fingers and fired a fast break pass ahead — and Louisville was off to the races.
The lesson for opponents: If you’ve come to play Louisville, you’d better bring your elevator shoes.
Four passes, one dribble and a dunk — in four seconds
A few plays later, Louisville guards Ryan McMahon and Quentin Snider were cooking up a little something when McMahon suddenly drove under the basket and passed the ball to Snider in the corner, open for a three. Snider didn’t quite have his hands right for the shot, so he flicked the ball back to McMahon, who flicked it right back to Snider, who by that time was driving the baseline for what looked like a lay-up, except …
… except Snider crossed everybody up by looping a lob to Spalding — where did he come from? — who buried a dunk faster than you could snap your fingers.
Four passes, one dribble and a dunk. In about three seconds.
And the lesson?
The lesson is when you ask the players about such plays afterward in the locker room, all they talk about is defense.
“For us,” says Mahmoud, “the one thing we focus on is being defensively aggressive. It’s not just me blocking shots, or Ray grabbing rebounds, it’s everything happening on the defensive end.”
As if those blocked shots and sky-high ball snags put a charge into the players that ignites at the other end of the court.
“We call Ray the human deflector because he gets his hands on everything,” says McMahon. “He’s so long, and not only does he have quick feet, he has quick hands.”
Recalling a clutch Spalding steal in the final minute of an earlier game against Albany, McMahon dished out praise for his teammate.
“I mean, it was just an incredible play that he got us a steal for an extra possession to allow us to get the lead,” says McMahon. “That right there, you could argue was the game changer.”
“He seems to sense the moment,” Indiana coach Archie Miller says of Spalding. “That one place in the game when the play needs to be made.”
Or a lot of moments.
Spalding has filled the stat sheet with numbers in recent Louisville wins.
“He’s the best defensive rebounder on the team by far, and it’s not even close,” says Padgett. “But he just … and I’m not saying it’s all the time … but when Ray gets locked in on what he needs to do to help us to win, I mean it’s impressive to watch.”
And something the Louisville coach and former Louisville star center can see at eye level. Spalding is 6-10, Padgett 6-11, and Mahmoud 7-feet.
It’s cool to eyeball the Louisville huddle at timeouts and see the coach standing near his star big men — plus 6-10 freshman reserves Malik Williams and 6-9 Lance Thomas. The skyline is complete with 6-10 transfer Steven Enoch, dressed in street clothes, but leaning in to hear what’s said in the huddle. Enoch will be eligible to play next season.
All that tall timber almost makes 6-8 shooting stars Deng Adel and Jordan Nwora look small — though they’re not of course. It’s just a very tall Louisville team.
Let ’em shoot, then ruin their day
Mahmoud is a standout center because he’s the best, or one of the best, big men in the country at blocking shots — a truly valuable skill in college basketball.
For most of the season, Mahmoud has led the nation in blocked shots, though for some reason after blocking a career-high nine rebounds one night, he dropped to second. Louisville, as a team, also led, but dropped to second.
But first or second, the senior from Cairo, Egypt is still averaging four-and-a-half blocks a game. A huge stat.
“One reason Anas is such a good shot blocker is besides his length and height, he has exceptional timing,” says Padgett. “He does a good job of blocking shots on his own man, when his man is trying to score. But he does an even better job when he comes off his man to help guard others.”
And the coach thinks he knows the reason.
“He’s similar to Gorgui (Dieng), who I kind of compare Anas with,” says Padgett, recalling the shot-blocking skills of 6-11 Dieng (2010-13), who holds the UofL single season record of 128 blocked shots. Dieng’s 267 career blocks is second to Pervis Ellison, the school’s all-time shot-blocking leader who rejected 374 (1985-89).
“Both Gorgui and Anas are one-footed jumpers,” says Padgett, who, as a player led Louisville in blocks for two seasons (2005-07).
“They jump much better, much higher, off one foot,” says Padgett. “So it’s not something you see very often, but just natural for them. They do a great job — and Ray, too — of letting the offensive player release the ball, then block it. You know you get in foul trouble when you try to block it when it’s still in their hand.”
Mahmoud defies all the fundamentals, of course.
First, he’ll let a shooter shoot, so he can block it. Then he might even let his man go by him to clock the player’s shot from the side or even behind.
One imagines Corydon, Ind., coach Ralph Cato, of my youth, spewing white-hot steam if any of his Panthers did something like that. Staying between your man and the basket is a like the Second Commandment of high school basketball.
But former Louisville collegiate coach Denny Crum defied the rule, teaching his players to play the passing lanes between opposing players. Don’t worry about the basket. Deny the passes. Then rely on shot blocking to control the game near the bucket.
Padgett gets the idea, and realizes Mahmoud is perfect for it.
“If a guy beats him and goes to the rim, Anas just lets the guy go, and then he blocks it,” says the coach.
The thing to remember is the rim is ONLY 10 feet high. A long way up there for most of us. But if you play like Louisville, the rim is just right there in the old shot-blocking wheelhouse.
The fastest dunk in the West
The rim is only 10 feet high on offense, too — and a player like Spalding takes full advantage of it.
The highlight reel dunks one sees on TV generally involve high arm-waggling, show-off rim-hanging, and totally predictable pro-wrassling scowls.
Spalding’s dunks are far cooler. And probably more effective. He only needs a few inches and less than a second to dunk: One hand. Ball. Rim. Gone.
The ball disappears down the drain faster than you can see it go through. As in — suddenly.
“Most definitely,” says Spalding, with a smile. “Just do it, and get back on defense. That’s my style.”
“When I have the attacking mindset, I want the ball want to score,” he says.
If this scribe could say one thing about Spalding, I’d say he’s maybe the fastest dunker out there now.
And who’s going to block it?
More about attitude than aptitude
Of course, Kentucky has its own array of fast and talented big men. The Wildcats roster shows six players (three freshmen and three sophomores) standing in at 6-9 or 6-10.
Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo pace the Wildcats in scoring at 15 points each per game, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander kind of all over the place. This season he’s got 106 points, 37 rebounds, 46 assists and 24 steals.
Of course, standing in is the wrong gerund/verb for Kentucky’s fast and dexterous players. They love to run. Couldn’t stand still.
Louisville’s job will be to slow down the Kentucky fast break. And guard its shooters. UK is hitting a strong 49.5 percent from the field, though it shoots only 36 percent from the three-point line. Louisville is about the same: 46 percent, with 36 percent 3s.
Blocked shots is a big difference.
Louisville has 111 blocks in 12 games, while Kentucky has 66 in 11 games. That’s a big on-paper advantage for Louisville, but the guess is the altitude wars will be more about attitude than aptitude. And foul trouble.
A year ago in Freedom Hall, Louisville practically dared Kentucky players to drive the basket. It was almost like they opened seams of daylight on purpose. When the Cats came calling, the Cards won the battles near the basket. You could almost hear it: “Don’t be bringing that stuff in here.”
But one imagines Kentucky coach John Calipari noticed and won’t be the least inclined to allow Louisville to award itself swaggering rights inside. Calipari generally out-coached Pitino, and should be troublesome for Padgett.
But Louisville’s propensity for passing might be a plus. Calipari says he directs his team into full court presses mostly to dial up the tempo of the game. “Our players are too young to get into a half-court game,” he says. “Experienced teams will run our young guys through enough picks and passes that eventually one of our guys will get lost.”
In the offense Padgett is creating, Louisville lives to pass. Move the ball around, seek sudden endings. So that could be something to watch Friday.
Or, Louisville might simply be able to recreate the script of a year ago when Quentin Snider sank a career high 22 points, with six rebounds, five assists and two steals in a 73-70 victory in the KFC Yum! Center.
Louisville also hopes to ramp up its defense at times by inserting reserve freshman defensive ace Darius Perry to ball hawk Kentucky guards.
Then he’d like to have 6-5 Dwayne Sutton ready to hound a high scorer and rebound deep in the second half. Sutton, a sophomore transfer, is particularly effective in the closing minutes of games. The coach might also bring freshman Jordan Nwora in to pep up the offense in spurts.
Mahmoud, the senior, insists on talking about defense and rebounding — and especially not letting loose anything get away.
“It’s not just me blocking shots, it’s everything that’s happening on the defensive end,” says Mahmoud. “When you go play UK and Carolina, and all the other big teams, it’s almost a killer to give up rebounds. After you’ve played so hard on defense, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.”
Kentucky is ranked 16th in the current Associated Press poll, while Louisville remains unranked. The opinion here is Calipari will have his team stoked for the contest at Rupp Arena. Louisville could get behind early and simply be unable to catch up. A little rattled by the experience. A long afternoon.
Or, Louisville could seize the airways early — and set its style for the game and the year.