A few weeks ago, Louisville looked like a gimme. Now? Not so much.
True, this team is just 4-23, but in recent games, the Cardinals have taken flight.
Go back to the win over Georgia Tech. It was just their third win, but they won. They followed that up by barely losing to Florida State, got crushed by Pitt but then pushed Miami and Virginia to the bitter end before giving Clemson a solid beating Saturday.
So hats off to Kenny Payne, who has started the long process of turning this program around.
They’re still in a deep hole but the Cards have shown heart and character. Duke’s job is to surpass that.
Of course when you look at the Cards in late February, you have to remember they have added two players recently. Well sort of, anyway.
Brandon Huntley-Hatfield is added in the sense that he’s been out and is now back. He’s a solid big man and the Cards really need that.
But they also picked up a very late addition in Nigerian big man Emmanuel Okorafor. Both guys are getting solid minutes and therefore lessening the burden of other players, which may have something with Louisville doing better at the end of games lately.
The biggest thing though is that the team is responding to Payne. He came into a situation where a possible heavy NCAA penalty made recruiting very difficult. Even the portal was a hard sell.
So he’s had to work with what he inherited for the most part and that wasn’t an elite group. Durham native El Ellis has excelled and has been his best weapon.
Junior Jae’lyn Withers is a good complementary player but on most nights he's not going to be the primary threat. Huntley-Hatfield, at a minimum, is big enough to push back inside. JJ Traynor has had his moments. Freshmen Mike James and Kamari Lands are real talents who, if they work hard, can build solid careers after Louisville.
It won’t be as easy as it may have looked recently for Duke. This team has really improved.
Then again, so has Duke.
What we saw Saturday is a vastly more mature and confident team. It has interior defense in Dereck Lively. It has solid perimeter play in Jeremy Roach, Tyrese Proctor, Mark Mitchell and Dariq Whitehead. And Kyle Filipowski, who hit the freshman wall that so many freshmen encounter, is better and stronger than he was earlier, and, it must be said, smarter.
This is a game that we never thought would be a concern when Louisville was struggling so mightily. But they are not that team anymore and suddenly, this game is much more interesting.
And there’s also this to remember: we’re not sure what quadrant Louisville is in, but it’d almost have to be the fourth.
Beating them is worth very little. Losing to them?
Draft Kings has it at Duke -18.5. Seems a bit high, given how much Louisville has improved.
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