Syracuse knows a thing or two about playing with a self-imposed postseason ban. The Orange did it last year, and it went pretty disastrously, as the team limped to the finish line with a sub-.500 record after the ban was announced. Louisville, meanwhile, announced a postseason ban about a week and a half ago, and since then, the Cardinals are 0-2 and so far, Rick Pitino sounds pretty defeated and resigned to the fact the season is, for all intents and purposes, over.
“The guys played really hard the last two games, but you can see it weighing on them a little bit emotionally that they’re not going to be in the tournament. So we’re just trying to keep our perspective, keep working hard,” said Pitino recently. He also mentioned that he’s trying to play more of his bench, presumably an indication hat he’s in full preparation mode for next season – hence my comment about how he seems to be readily admitting that this season is basically done.
The fact that Pitino is already looking ahead to next year could certainly help the Orange, though obviously Syracuse tends to have a tough time against a Pitino-coached team no matter the scenario. Somewhat ironically, one of the few games that Syracuse won last season after announcing the self-imposed ban was against Louisville, in a 69-59 victory in the Carrier Dome in the lone meeting of the season between the two teams. That was a game in which Rakeem Christmas went for 29 points, while Trevor Cooney had one of the worst performances in his career, going 1-of-10 and scoring just three points.
Prior to that game, however, Syracuse had gone 4-14 against the Cardinals in the past decade, however. And while this year’s Louisville team isn’t as good as some of the others Pitino has had over the years, they’re still 19-6 and ranked No. 18 in the AP poll.
The Cardinals just took a hit in terms of big man depth, of course, with the news that backup center Anas Mahmoud will miss the remainder of the season with an ankle injury, leaving Chinanu Onuaku to man the center position almost exclusively, which should help the Orange with its own lack of an inside presence. Of course, Arinze’s little brother has put together one heck of a season, with the 6-foot-10 sophomore averaging 9.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game. Look for Matz Stockman, a 7-foot sophomore who’s been averaging just 5.8 minutes per game, to get a little more run in the post if Onuaku needs a breather or gets into foul trouble.
Of course, the main attraction for the Cardinals is the duo of Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, a pair of fifth year seniors who transferred in this season from Drexel and Cleveland State, respectively. The duo are the top two scorers for the Cards, with the 6-foot-6 Lee averaging 16.5 points and the 6-foot-2 Lewis contributing 12.2 points per game. Both can fill it up from deep, with Lee having hit 51 treys at a clip of 36.7% while Lewis has knocked down 41 triples, hitting 37.6% from distance.
The third guard to keep an eye on is Quentin Snider, a 6-foot-2 sophomore who averages 9.8 points and 3.6 assists while hitting 41.3% from deep. Jaylen Johnson, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, and Ray Spalding, a 6-foot-10 freshman, will provide some depth on the inside – though both are skinny, lanky forwards – while Donovan Mitchell is a 6-foot-3 guard who is averaging 8.1 points in just 20.2 minutes off the bench as a freshman.
That said, the real calling card of Louisville under Pitino has always been the team’s intense defensive effort, and this year is no different. Against most teams this season, the key for Syracuse has been staying competitive on the glass and knocking down some perimeter shots. Tomorrow night, however, it’ll be all about limiting turnovers. If the combination of Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney, Malachi Richardson, and Frank Howard can protect the ball against a Louisville team that forces 14.6 turnovers per game, the Orange will be in good position to pull off what would be considered a small upset (although it should be noted that Syracuse is hotter than the Cards, who have lost the last two games to Duke and Notre Dame – no slouches but still, losses can become contagious, especially in the kind of precarious situation in which the Cardinals find themselves).