I know what you’re thinking. It’s only Rutgers. The Cards have won six of seven against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights came in 0-5 in the Big East. So the University of Louisville wins 78-59, and it’s no surprise.
I get it. I get it.
But here’s the thing. You just don’t go on the road in the Big East and shoot 60 percent from the field. You just don’t dominate defensively the way U of L did in the first half, holding Rutgers scoreless for more than 10 minutes while building a 20-point lead. And winning three straight road games in Big East play — no matter where the games are played — is worth its weight in gold.
Consider this: Rutgers jumped out to lead Syracuse at the half. It jumped out to lead Pittsburgh at the half. Tonight it jumped — off a cliff. What you saw from U of L is the sign of a team that not only is focused, but is paying attention to scouting reports. When opponents have a habit of doing one thing, and come out and do exactly the opposite, somebody didn’t just study the scouting report, they executed it.
Now, I’m no Lou Holtz. I don’t want to make this win out to be more than it is. But I am trying to say this — it’s a better win than you might think. And the more you look at it, the more you realize that.
Everybody will be talking about Terrence Williams’ five fabulous dunks, and his 23 points and 11 rebounds tonight. And they should be.
But defense was the story at Rutgers. And maturity was the sidebar.
I mean, I don’t want to bring up a sore subject, but the basketball team gave up fewer points to Rutgers than the football team did.
For 10 marvelous minutes in the first half, I don’t know that I’ve seen U of L’s defense look better all season. The Cards have made a habit of putting the clamps on opponents late in games recently. Tonight they brought the clamps out from the beginning.
“That was a devastating 18 minutes of pressure basketball,” U of L coach Rick Pitino told Bob Valvano on the Nelligan Sports post-game radio interview. “And turn around, we only took three challenged shots for the game, which is our low for the season.”
If you haven’t been to the RAC at Rutgers, you don’t quite know what you’re looking at. The small gym, the small crowd, it gives the game a high-school kind of feel. And you have to be careful not to revert to a high-school type of mentality.
Instead, U of L stayed on the defensive gas, and the only real weakness they showed was in the turnover department, with Williams the chief culprit. Nonetheless, they got the ball inside. They created offense with their defense. They made enough perimeter shots.
Edgar Sosa had four assists and no turnovers. And Pitino admitted that a light bulb went on as he started thinking about Sosa’s performance. After three years, he decided that one of Sosa’s defensive deficiencies was conditioning, and so Sosa has been working extra. And tonight, Pitino noted, he didn’t break down, even with Andre McGee in foul trouble.
I wrote about the press earlier this week, and tonight Pitino said that one thing that is ratcheting up the Cards’ defensive pressure is that they like to watch themselves.
“I think they’re getting a big thrill out of watching themselves on tape pressing,” Pitino told Valvano. “Seeing Andre and seeing Preston get after it, all our guys are all buying into it and creating that type of intensity. Holding a team to 39 percent and shooting 60 ourselves — that’s a devastating performance.”
And then there was Williams. Think about this. At halftime of ESPNU’s coverage, Jimmy Dykes called Williams “one of the great leaders in college basketball.” Pretty heady stuff.
I figured since I wrote a column on Williams this morning, he’d come out and struggle. Instead, he came out and, as usual, did it all. Another double-double. He was only five dunks away from a triple-double.
There were a couple of other-wordly moments. A couple of Jerry Stackhouse-esque moves to the rim, including one when he saw a lane in a full-court drive and simply drove down the lane and dunked over everybody.
“Going foul line to rim, that was scary, the burst of speed,” Pitino told Valvano. ” . . . I thought, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ Then I just sat there with my mouth open. He really is playing phenomenal basketball. His play is rising to match his athleticism. And his athleticism is scary.”
About the only glitch was a technical foul. It happened when Andre McGee was a little too demonstrative protesting a foul call in the second half, and counted as his fourth in the game. It was a quick trigger on the “T,” particularly when Rutgers’ Hamady N’diaye stormed out at a ref during a timeout after his fifth foul, but wasn’t whistled.
Not that it matters.
The charge that McGee and Preston Knowles give this team was in full evidence anyway.
“When I want those guys in the game, I just yell ‘Microwave!'” Pitino told Valvano. “And we know they’re going to heat it up.”
Right now, you could say that for the whole team.
BROADCAST NOTE: I like what ESPNU is doing, having college kids doing portions of the game announcing and some features on their network. The Rutgers guys who called a portion of tonight’s game did a nice job, particularly given that their team didn’t score a single point during all the time they were broadcasting. They didn’t sugar-coat it, and stayed with the action. I’d like to see more of it. What I don’t think we needed to see was those two guys in their press-row seats. The picture of the game was reduced to a little more than half a screen so we could watch two guys talk. Not necessary. But a good idea by ESPNU on the whole.