Young Cardinals put to the test in Puerto Rico

Louisville’s men’s basketball team headed to Puerto Rico for this year’s mid-August tour knowing that it wouldn’t be a cakewalk.

Facing off against Puerto Rican professionals — including the National Team — the series of exhibition games provided Rick Pitino and his assistants valuable time to work with their intriguing group of graduate transfers, largely untested returning players, and rookies.

While players on other ACC teams were wrapping up their summer vacations, the Cardinals were in the heat of battle on the court, learning how to play with each other, as well as how to cope with the offseason losses of Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier, and Wayne Blackshear from last year’s Elite Eight squad.

And while things got off to a rough start for the Cardinals in Puerto Rico, as they lost their first five games on the tour, their Hall of Fame head coach kept things in perspective.

[callout2]“It’s a great group. It’s a very special group. I’ve got a great feeling about these guys and what they’re all about. They’ve got to realize what defense is all about. It’s a changing culture, from just caring about jump shots to playing great defense. And they’re getting it,” said Pitino to reporters during the exhibition series.[/callout2]

The Louisville Courier-Journal posted online video of Pitino’s postgame comments throughout the Puerto Rican tour.

On the first two days — August 11 and August 12 — the Cardinals played a series of doubleheaders, breaking up into “A” and “B” teams. Projected key contributors such as Damion Lee, Quentin Snider, Trey Lewis, and Chinanu Onuaku didn’t play in the “B” games, while younger players such as sophomore Matz Stockman and freshman Ryan McMahon mostly sat out the “A” contests.

On August 11, the Cardinals were beaten 89-81 in the “A” game despite a 36-point effort from Damion Lee, who buried five of ten 3-pointer attempts and made all nine of his free throws. Only two others — fellow graduate transfer Lewis and Onuaku — managed double figures in that particular contest.

August 12 was the low point of the trip for the Cardinals, as they were dominated in the “A” game 96-62 by the Puerto Ricans, following a heartbreaking 79-77 setback in the “B” game. Freshmen Donovan Mitchell and Raymond Spalding did show promise in that day’s “B” contest, combining for 35 points and 13 rebounds. Unfortunately for U of L, that squad shot just 23-of-68 from the floor (33.8 percent), when a couple extra buckets could have put them over the top.

The 34-point blowout that followed in the “A” game revealed some chinks in Louisville’s armor that opposing ACC squads may try to exploit this coming season. Puerto Rico made nine 3-pointers, though it took them 25 attempts. The Puerto Rican pros out-rebounded the Cardinals, and blocked six Louisville shots while forcing 15 turnovers, including 11 on steals.

It was a performance that could have gotten Louisville beaten in almost any gym in the ACC, and Pitino reflected that afterwards.

[callout2]“I thought our team was horse**** tonight. The reason is this team played defense like they’ve never played before,” Pitino replied. “I think their spirit was destroyed. And they learned a valuable lesson. I think the other team played great. But this is what this is all for. On our road schedule, they’ve got to learn to play with hostile fans. And these (Puerto Rican) fans are cheering fans. They’re going to learn a lot from this.”[/callout2]

Pitino had a talk with three of the team’s rising sophomores — Matz Stockman, Anas Mahmoud, and Quentin Snider — following the dreadful August 12 outing. The Hall of Fame coach implored those players to loosen up a little bit on the floor, while also reminding them to understand their role and obligation to step up as returning veterans on this squad.

“I had a long talk with Anas and Matz,” Pitino said. “I had a long talk with Q. I had a long talk with a lot of the guys. I just told them that we’re three months away from our (first regular season) game, and you’re not having enough fun right now. You’re disappointed in losing. I said you’re playing against pros. Come out and make each other better. I told Anas and Matz, ‘You need to step up now. You’re sophomores.’ You guys need to step and show — and Anas did (against the National Team August 13)— he showed that he’s worthy of being a Louisville Cardinal.”

As might be expected after the disappointing outing on August 12, the Cardinals came out much more focused and determined the following night against the Puerto Rican National Team. And though U of L once again fell, the young group pushed the top Puerto Rican team to overtime before falling, 102-94. Louisville shot 57 percent from the floor, got 29 points from Damion Lee, and had four players in double figures despite the setback — including 11 from an energized Mahmoud.

Naturally, Pitino seemed much more pleased with the August 13 effort than the previous night.

“The guys played great. This was by far our best performance (down here),” Pitino replied. “All our bigs played terrific. Anas played great. We went with a bigger lineup, trying to take them out of their offense. Jaylen (Johnson) was good (scoring 11 points). Anas was good. Mangok (Mathiang) was good (scoring 10 points), and Ray (Spalding) was good (scoring 11 points). And they just got in foul trouble. Down the stretch we just had no interior shot blocking, which allowed them to take advantage of mismatches.”

Despite the five losses to begin the Puerto Rican tour, there’s little doubt that this is a unique chance for the Cardinals to get a lot better before returning to the mainland. When those ACC regular season battles of January and February heat up, Pitino will point to the August battles in the simmering gymnasiums of Puerto Rico as essential preparation for his squad.