Cards trying to avoid 'trap' at Pitt before Duke showdown

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - The biggest game on the ACC schedule this week is Louisville's appearance in Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., for a first-place showdown with No. 3 and ACC-leading Duke Saturday evening. ESPN thinks it's such a big deal that its College GameDay show will make its season debut there for the 6 p.m. ET battle.


It is not, however, the biggest game on Louisville's schedule - at least not yet.


In the eyes of coach Chris Mack and his players, No. 11  U of L's most important game is the one it plays a few days before that -- Tuesday night's trip to Pittsburgh (11-5, 2-3), with the tip set for 7:01 p.m. ET (ACCN).


So don't make the mistake of asking Mack, as one brave media type (blush) did Monday afternoon, if he had  any worries about his players' focus on Pitt, since the Cardinals (13-3, 4-1) handled the Panthers relatively easy a month ago, 64-46, in the KFC Yum! Center and a marquee matchup looms.


This is what in college basketball and football is referred to as a 'trap' game. That is, one preceding one that will draw more interest and have a bigger impact nationally.


"They're all big. I don't even want to really respond to that question," Mack said curtly, not trying to hide his disdain for the query. "I don't look at it that way, I don't think our players look at it that way. It's hard to win on the road in conference, so whether we win or lose tomorrow has zero to do with what you all perceive as a big game on Saturday."


And senior guard Ryan McMahon pointed out that the last time the Cards played in the Petersen Events Center, on Jan. 9, 2019, they lost to Pitt, 89-86 in overtime, snapping a 12-game UofL winning streak in the series.


"I don't think it's that difficult because last time we went to Pitt they beat us," McMahon said. "We know they're a really good team. They have some really electric guards, so we're not going up there expecting some easy win. We know it's gonna be a fight, it's gonna be loud in there, the coach has changed the culture. So we know it's not going to be an easy 40-point game like it might have been a few years ago."


In the first meeting, the Cards came out red-hot, putting on a sensational 3-point shooting exhibition in the first half. Seven different players -- none of them named Jordan Nwora -- drilled trifectas in the first 13 minutes and UofL finished the half 9-of-17 with a 35-21 lead.


Pitt never led but did close to within five points twice midway through the second half before Louisville used a 13-0 run to settle the issue.


Surrendering substantial leads like that has been an ongoing problem for U of L this season, with the two latest examples coming last week against Miami and last-place Notre Dame. In the 74-58 win over the Canes, the Cards squandered all but five points of a 20-point lead, and in the 67-64 victory at Notre Dame Saturday they fell behind by four points late in the game after leading by as many as 16.


However, Mack said he hasn't detected a common denominator that has played a role in enabling opponents to wipe out deficits.


"The last two games we certainly built good leads," Mack said. "We've got to be able to hold onto them, which has been a little bit of an issue as you know. I think in certain games what plagued us is we got a little bit greedy with our shot selection. That wasn't the case against Notre Dame. From the outside, you say, 'What the hell's wrong, how can they not hold a lead? Put your foot on the gas.' The shots we were creating to start the second half, you can't get better shots, and that was an issue for us at times when we've held leads -- getting errant with our shot selection.


"But the season is a long one, it's a marathon, and  you can't get caught up too much in where you're at at a particular point in time. You've just got to worry about continually getting better, get your guys to come to practice with a lot of energy, that same focus."


Mack said the key for UofL against Pitt this time will be the same as it was earlier -- containing explosive guards Trey McGowens and Xavier Johnson, who have combined for averages of 25 points and 8.2 assists per game. Against the Cards, though, McGowens was 2-of-9 with four points, three turnovers and three assists while Johnson scored 15 points, but had five turnovers and just two assists.


"If you're gonna beat Pittsburgh you have to be able to keep their guards out of the lane," Mack said. "They play extremely downhill, whether it's off a ball screen, whether it's off isolations in space, whether it's in transition, those two guards are trying to get their chest into the lane and then figure out from there what they want to do. Whether that's draw a foul, finish, kick out, they'll do it all and they'll be the engine for their team."


Going into the game, U of L is tied with Florida State (13-3, 4-1) for second place in the ACC behind Duke (15-1, 5-0). The Blue Devils will put their nine-game winning streak on the line at Clemson (8-7, 2-3) Tuesday night.


ENOCH OKAY--After the Notre Dame game, Mack said starting center Steven Enoch was "under the weather" and indicated that was the reason for his sub-par performance of two points and five rebounds in 16 minutes. Mack said Monday that the 6-10 senior should be close to full strength at Pitt.


"It's one of those things where it wasn't a 24-hour virus," Mack said. "He's been sick for quite a few days, but I think he's at the tailend now and hopefully he's a better version of himself tomorrow night."


ESPN RIPS CARDS--ESPN college basketball analyst Jim Crispin, a former Penn State and UCLA basketball player, isn't impressed with Louisville, to put it mildly. After the Cards' win against the Irish in South Bend, Ind., Crispin had this to say on a telecast:


"I'm just trying to find a pulse and I feel like it's a resting heartbreat, that's what this team is, and it needs to be running 20 miles per hour on a treadmill. You're held to a higher standard and you have to match the effort with your expectations, and the expectations of this team should be high.


"I'm raising my voice because I'm frustrated by this team. They're much better than they've played. This is a team with Final Four potential, but not Final Four effort, not Final Four toughness. I'm not sure what brings it out. Do losses bring it out? This is a team that squeaks through games. This is one they should have won by 20."

Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

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