With just three games remaining in the regular season, No. 7 Louisville's meeting against Syracuse on Sunday afternoon comes with high implications. At 22-6 overall and in a four-team tie for second place in the ACC standings with a 10-5 mark, the Cardinals final outings will determine if the team receives one of the very valuable first-round byes in the upcoming league tournament.
"These next three games are going to show how mature we are as a team," said sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell.
Up first is a rematch against the Orange. The first meeting, held nearly two weeks ago, saw the Cardinals race out to a 14-point first half lead only to see Syracuse slow battle back before forcing an overtime period. Reserve Ryan McMahon served as the hero, scoring seven points in the extra frame to spark the visitors to victory.
Mitchell, who led the Cardinals with 16 points, attributed the success to team defense and late-game focus.
"We executed on defense and I think that's what got us 12-point lead early on," he said. "We stopped playing defense a little bit and let them back in the game, but the way we played down the stretch, with Ryan coming up big, and everybody coming up big definitely showed how much potential we have when playing in big moments like that."
Syracuse is coming off a thrilling victory of its own, a last-second 78-75 win over Duke on Wednesday night. Mitchell is anticipating the rematch to be similar to the team's first meeting.
"This game is going to be just like that - hard-fought all the way to the end - but, we definitely learned a lot about ourselves in that game."
Mitchell takes the lead on free throw improvement
One of the obvious factors in Louisville's loss at No. 8 North Carolina on Wednesday was the team's inability to make its free throws. It's an area that the team has struggled with throughout the season, but possibly no worse than what happened in the 74-63 loss in Chapel Hill.
Outside of Mitchell, who connected on both of his attempts, the team couldn't find a rhythm from the charity stripe. Quentin Snider hit a pair, but also missed a pair while in the double-bonus. The rest of the team combined to shoot 0-7.
Mitchell, a team captain, took a leadership role immediately upon the return to Louisville. He took a teammate to the practice gym as soon as they returned home and has spent time chatting with other teammates about working to improve.
"I actually brought Ray Spalding with me into the Yum the moment we landed and we shot a few free throws together," he said. "I'm just trying to talk to every guy individually and not let them get to discouraged. It happens, but unfortunately it happened at a high rate in that particular game, but you can't let a game like that effect your confidence, especially from the free throw line."
With the post-season rapidly approaching, Mitchell has emphasized the importance that free throws will become.
"You have to make your weakness your strength."
Despite the struggles, the guard, who is hitting 80 percent of his free throw attempts, explained that it is an area where improvement can quickly be made with more effort in the gym.
"The good thing about free throws is that its something that you can work on."