There were several things "new" Monday night. A new hoops season tipped. Three or four new starters joined the action depending on how you count that sort of thing. If you didn't notice, the baskets were brand new, too. And the backboards even lit up like the NBA.
And there's nothing quite like opening night when the lights go out, the video screen starts pumping the U of L highlights and the starters are introduced to their adoring fans. If the Freedom Hall pregame atmosphere doesn't get you pumped and excited for college hoops action, nothing will!
So let's get right to the action!
In a season that Coach Pitino has termed a "rebuilding," one, these Cards do a lot of really positive things on the court. They shoot it well. They're very quick and athletic. They play hard and aggressive basketball. And they have an star on offense in Francisco Garcia who is emerging right before our eyes.
But the shortcomings of this group appear obvious, especially with 6'9 Nouha Diakite sidelined by clearing issues with the NCAA. Already short one man up front, the Cards struggled on the boards against EA Sports at times, getting outrebounded by five. And they sometimes struggled in the half court to generate offensive production unless sophomore forward Garcia stepped up and created it. But all in all the positives outweighed the negatives.
And the good for U of L has to start with senior leader Luke Whitehead and the charismatic Garcia.
Against EA Sports, Luke Whitehead was simply sensational. How's this for a stat line? 25 points, 11 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists and 1 blocked shot. Those kind of numbers spell Player of the Game!
Here's how Whitehead does it and it's a very simple yet effective formula for the 6'6 power forward. He crashes the boards hard, chases the ball all over the court and is sporting an improved midrange jumper. And the pump fake and pull ups were nifty, too.
And we're changing Garcia's nickname from the Latin Assassin to the Generator Man because he has the ability to generate offense with the pass, the shot and the dribble.
The Cards hit some lulls on offense against EA, especially when the game slowed down. But Garcia pulled his team out of two such mini slumps during the game.
The first came during the opening half when he knocked in a three from the wing, then drove the lane for a terrific wrap around to Whitehead for an assist to quickly put five quick one's on the board and get the U of L offense going in the right direction again. The second spurt Garcia started came with less than 6 minutes to go when Garcia buried a three, then penetrated and found Brad Gianiny for an open three on the wing. Six quick one's to open the game even more.
Taquan Dean also directed the U of L offense well and really forced the pace in the first half. His shots weren't falling like usual but 7 assists, 7 rebounds, 3 steals and only one turnover look real good on the stat sheet.
And Kendall Dartez decided to get aggressive on the offensive end in the second frame. He came out of the locker room with a dunk, a midrange baseline jumper and a triple from the left wing. He scored 13 in the final frame. His five rebounds and three blocks were nice but the charges he drew were even better.
And it looks like this team will live up to another Pitino trademark this season as they appear to have "spurt-ability." That's simply the ability to string points together quickly while limiting your opponents offensive output. Combine U of L's ability to knock down three's with their propensity to get in the passing lanes and create steals and deflections and that's a recipe for spurt-ability. Garcia is tremendously adept at getting in the passing lanes and his anticipation is uncanny. the team finished with a Pitino pleasing 37 deflections for the game.
What scares you about this team.
For one, getting outrebounded at home against EA Sports. When Brad Gianiny outrebounds Francisco Garcia that's not good. And when Paul Shirley get 13 boards against you, that's really not good. Rebounding, as will be the case most of the season, will be where this team misses Ellis Myles the most. Not having Nouha Diakite also didn't help matters. Nor does firing 31 three pointers. But rebounding has rarely hindered a Pitino coached team for one simple reason and it applies with this bunch..shooting cures a multitude of sins.
How could 90% foul shooting be a concern? When you only get to the line 10 times against an inferior conditioned opponent. Whitehead did the job and got to the line, knocking in 7-7 from the stripe but with excellent marksmen like Garcia, Dean, O'Bannon and Daniels attempting only two freebes....the Cards must do a better job in this area.
For a first time out, though, the Cards performed well. With more experience and cohesion this team will be fun and exciting to watch this season. More importantly, they'll win a bunch of games, too.
Play of the Game
Had to be Brad Gianiny's rebound in traffic that he outletted to Francisco Garcia, who then threw a superb underhand shovel pass to Luke Whitehead for a dunk.
Player of the Game
Luke Whitehead. 25 points, 11 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists and 1 block.