LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Dwayne Sutton. V.J. King. Darius Perry.
Those are three players to watch closely who could be keys to whether No. 7 Louisville (20-13) can defeat Minnesota (21-13) Thursday in the first round of the East Regional and launch a successful run in the NCAA Tournament.
The first will come as no surprise -- Sutton has been a valuable contributor all season while being the only Cardinal to start all 33 games. King and Perry, meanwhile, have been buried deep on the bench for most of the season, but lately have shown signs of as emerging as important role plays at an opportune time. Depth will be important in the tourney and that duo gives UofL a nine-man rotation.
The reason Sutton is included in the trio is that, although he has continued to be a defensive and rebounding mainstay he struggled offensively throughout most of February, and his scoring has been sorely missed, especially with defenses concentrating on Jordan Nwora.
King, a 6-6 junior swingman, and Perry, a lightning-quick 6-2 sophomore who can play either guard position, hadn't seen much action through most of the ACC schedule, but Mack has used both players much more lately and they have played well enough to settle into the postseason rotation.
Most notably, Perry nailed a critical 3-pointer and a mid-range jumper back-to-back late in Louisville's 56-55 win over Clemson and King grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds in 24 minutes of the 75-61 win against Notre Dame in the regular-season finale. They each played half of both games in the ACC tourney and are averaging a combined 35 minutes in the last five contests.
While their offensive production has been limited, King is valued for his rebounding and defense while Perry is the Cards' best on-ball defender and also has shooting ability, as he showed against Clemson. He has exhibited good shot selection, hitting 9-of-17 in his last four outings.
"Those guys can be huge difference-makers in their respective areas and the things they bring to the table," Mack said. "They're two of our better athletes. Darius can be a menace on the defensive end and pressure the ball like nobody on our team. He's an Energizer Bunny. He also has the ability because of his quickness and strength to get into the lane. That's never been an issue, it's being able to make the right decision.
"And fortunately, for our team and for Darius over the last three weeks, he's made that right decision more often than not. I think he's found his confidence shooting the ball and picking his spots on the offensive end.
"V.J. has really added to our offensive rebounding, gives us great size on the perimeter defensively. Those two guys playing at a high level just really adds to our team.”
Sutton, who is Louisville's only double-figure scorer other than Nwora (17.2 ppg.) at 10.2 ppg. and has been in the grips of a shooting slump, also needs to be at his best, which he hasn't been most of the time for the past month or so. The 6-5 junior forward failed to score in double figures in five consecutive games near the end of the regular season, averaging only 5.6 ppg, with the Cards losing three of them.
In the last six regular season games and the 75-53 win over Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament, Sutton shot just 26.8 percent overall (15-58), including an ice cold 19.0 percent from 3-point land (5-26).
Mack said before the ACC tourney that he had had a few talks with Sutton about his shooting woes, urging him to continue to play at a high level in other areas.
"He lost confidence," Mack said. "I've said many times, confidence is a funny thing. There were times when he was an all-ACC first-team-type performer. He has to worry about things that are under this control -- his effort, his energy, his toughness level. I know Dwayne always worries about winning and I think part of his confidence problem is he feels like he lets teammates down when he's not playing very effectively.”
Sutton is UofL's second-leading rebounder at 6.9 per game and during his slump his board work has stayed fairly steady, although he had games of only two (vs. Clemson) and three (vs. Notre Dame).
Sutton's shooting improved in the 83-70 loss to North Carolina in the ACC quarterfinals and that's a good sign going forward. He was 5-of-10 overall and 4-of-9 from distance, his best marksmanship by far in both departments combined since going 5-of-8 and 4-of-7 in the 80-75 overtime loss at Florida State on Feb. 9.
"Dwayne went through a stretch there where it seemed like he just wasn't playing as well offensively," UofL point guard Christen Cunningham said. "He still did so much for us defensively and rebounding the ball, but (vs. UNC) he made some threes and was more aggressive, and that's what we need from him. We need him to be aggressive and be a playmaker, so it was good to see him get in a good rhythm."
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 email@example.com.