Louisville's 77-68 win over Ole Miss is proof positive the Cardinals have taken some important steps forward since their setback against the Hilltoppers last month. Despite blowing all of an 18 point first half lead – Ole Miss actually regained the lead 63-62 in the second half – Louisville showed poise down the stretch against the SEC's Rebels.
In this game, Louisville pounded Ole Miss on the boards, out-rebounding Andy Kennedy's team 54-35. The Cardinals also did it with defense, holding Ole Miss to just 34 percent shooting, including only 4 of 23 from beyond the three-point line. Louisville also blocked eight shots, and despite shooting just 39 percent, found a way to win late in the contest.
"The whole night we stayed with our defense," Rick Pitino said on his post-game radio show. "Against Western Kentucky we got discouraged about the shots not going in and we lost our defense. Tonight we didn't lose our defense."
Louisville also figured out they can beat a quality opponent when freshman center Samardo Samuels has an off-night offensively. That wasn't the case against WKU, when Samuels made just 3-of-7 shots and scored just 11 points – six less than his 17 point season average.
To be sure, Samuels struggled mightily on offense against Ole Miss. He missed several point blank shots at the rim and made just 2 of 13 shots from the field.
vs. Ole Miss but came up with 13 rebounds.
"We learned a valuable lesson in all of this – Samardo has got to learn..to play above the rim and don't bring the ball down," Pitino said.
"This guy's shooting 62 percent. It's the ultimate respect that they were paying so much attention to (him). So he's got to pass the ball. And more important he's got to play above the rim. He plays with the ball below the rim unless he's dunking it."
Despite his struggles on offense, Samuels still managed to make a major impact on the game's outcome with 13 rebounds, two blocks and nine points – mostly on free throws.
"I told him down the stretch, ‘you're value is going to be how well you play defensively and how well you rebound," said Pitino. "He had 13 rebounds down the stretch. So that was great. He had five at halftime and picked up eight in the second half."
"He learned so much by this," Pitino added.
So did Louisville. Pitino said he has seen his team make good progress since losing to WKU in Nashville last month.
"We made big time plays going inside to outside," Pitino said. "We're not a great shooting team unless we take open shots. We're not a great shooting team unless we go inside to out where our rebounders are inside.
"Like the one shot Preston Knowles took coming down on the break – that is so not us," Pitino said. "We don't have a (David) Huertas shooting 47 percent on difficult shots."
Now, Louisville must quickly correct their mistakes and apply their newfound lessons against 9-0 Minnesota Saturday at noon in Phoenix.
"We learned an awful lot tonight. We're getting better and better," said Pitino. "We're not even a good team yet. I've had good teams and I've had great teams. We're growing, though. We've got to be ready come January and February without taking losses. We learned so many things tonight that are going to help us grow."
Pitino wants to see his team play more like it did in the first 10 minutes against Ole Miss – a stretch where Louisville dominated the action while building an impressive 18 point lead over the Rebels.
"We played an awesome ten minutes," Pitino said. "How do we duplicate that?"
That's a question Louisville will be searching for answer during the next couple weeks before Big East play gets started next month. Whatever solution Pitino finds you can bet Earl Clark will be a big part of any formula for sustained success for this team.
"We have to show them why (we built the lead) – it was off our defense, it was off inside to outside and it was off so many good things," Pitino said. "And then we started quick shooting. Now we can show them why they lost their (lead)."
It's nearly certain Pitino will point out those mistakes to his Cardinals on the way out to Arizona to face a tough Tubby Smith-coached team.