The 2014 NCAA basketball season kicked off with the annual Armed Forces Classic. This year’s bout was more than a regular season game between the University of Louisville Cardinals and the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.
This game honored the men and women of the United States Coast Guard. The Air Station Borinquen in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, usually houses helicopters. Tonight, those helicopters were cleared out and a basketball court was built in their place.
On the way to the court, the Minnesota basketball team’s charter flight picked up the Cards and the two teams flew in together. Why the shared transportation? Because the team’s head coaches are pretty tight. Minnesota is coached by Richard Pitino, the son of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino.
Richard Pitino, in his second year at Minnesota is the 4th youngest head coach in Division 1, at age 32. Last year, he led the Golden Gophers to a school record 25 wins and an NIT championship. On the court in Puerto Rico are 4 returning starters, bringing back 63% of the scoring and 71% of the rebound production from last season.
Rick Pitino, leader of 3 straight 30-win seasons at Louisville hopes to at least repeat, if not best his team’s Sweet 16 appearance (lost to in-state rival Kentucky) from last year. He brings, as he describes, “the youngest team he’s had for a while” into a new conference for the third straight year. Last year, they won the American Conference championship and the 2012-2013 season saw them take home the trophy for the Big East Conference. Earning a conference champion three-peat will be a bit more difficult as the Cards find themselves in this year’s toughest basketball conference – the ACC (4 teams in the Preseason AP Top 10, 5 in the Top 25).
The Pitino family has drawn lines for this game. Dad Rick said beforehand, “This game, obviously, one of us loses. You don’t like to see your son lose and I’m sure he doesn’t like to see his dad lose.” Son Richard laughed as he said, “Oh, I think he’s out of his mind during a game…” His mom, Joanne Pitino, “gets very upset when someone says [Richard] ‘looks just like his dad'” Rick explained. She’s okay with “he sounds like his dad” but when it comes to looks, she’s taking all the credit. Richard “looks like mom and is much better looking than Rick.” So who is she rooting for in the Pitino match-up? Her baby boy, Richard, “because he’s my blood.”
Richard may have a defensive scheme that mirrors his dad’s but he’s actually modeling his coaching career after Florida’s Billy Donovan, who he coached under for 2 years. “I don’t wake up each day trying to be my dad,” Richard told ESPN in an interview that aired before the game. “I’m just trying to figure out my own way right now.”
Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell’s decision to turn down the NBA draft and return to school for his junior year was one of the big surprises of the offseason. Last season, the 6’8″ forward averaged 13.8 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game, and had a 61% field goal percentage, good for 6th in the NCAA. He returned to expand his game and spent the summer working on his outside jump shot. It’s only fitting then that Louisville’s first points of the season were scored by the 2013-2014 American Athletic Conference Most Improved Player and 2014-2015 Preseason AP All-American.
Harrell’s first shot of the game showed off his hard work as he nailed a 3 pointer to get U of L’s season started.
Minnesota’s Nate Mason caught Harrell snoozing about 5 minutes into the game. Harrell stood by and watched a missed shot bounce high off the rim. Mason beat him to the rebound, drove the length of the court and finished the layup, giving Minnesota the early lead and forcing a timeout from a frustrated Rick Pitino. Mason, who averaged 15.6 points per game and was a 2-time All-State selection in high school, ended up with 10 points and 5 rebounds in his collegiate debut.
Fouls and turnovers were the story of this game. A total of 59 fouls (31- UM, 28 – UL) and 34 turnovers (19 – UM, 15 – UL) were committed.
Wayne Blackshear, the senior guard for Louisville, started the foul party as he had 2 fouls less than 7 minutes into the game and was pulled. On the Minnesota side, junior forward Joey King got 2 fouls within the first 9 minutes and also was sent to the bench.
Minnesota came out of the gate strong, including a 7-0 run 7 minutes into the first half.
The momentum leaned back to Louisville when freshman Quentin Snider drew a foul while shooting. He made the ensuing free throw, successfully completing the 3-point play.
Minnesota’s foul trouble started early and often. Less than 10 minutes into the game, Louisville was already in bonus foul territory.
Blackshear kept Louisville competitive in the number of fouls each team had. Last season, he led the Cards in 3-pt shooting as he made 40% of his shots. Tonight, he struggled to stay on the floor as he committed his third foul with just under 10 minutes left in the first half. The limited playing time kept him to only 7 points all night, going 1 for 3 from the 3-point line. He did make 4 of his 5 free throw attempts and finished with 4 rebounds.
Double bonus for Louisville occurred with 8:54 left in the 1st half. Their aggressive, hard play forced Minnesota to foul to stay in the game. Unfortunately, the fouls were backfiring as Louisville was 13-15 (87%) from the free throw line at that point.
Shortly after Louisville went into double bonus, U of L’s David Levitch was called for a flagrant 1 foul. The 6’3″ guard accidentally elbowed Mason in the chin. As hot as Louisville was from the free throw line, Minnesota was as cold. Mason missed both free throws for the technical foul. Louisville finished with 9 more free throws made than Minnesota – a key difference in the outcome of the game.
Minnesota’s first half woes overflowed as Louisville went on an 18-3 run. Andre Hollins, the Gophers leading scorer of the night (22 points), finally hit a 3-pointer to stop the bleeding. Minnesota hung tight and kept fighting. As they struggled to stay in the game, Hollins rebounded one of his own shots and put it up again, cutting the Cards lead to 10.
Louisville took off in the last 3 minutes before halftime though. An ally-oop from Chris Jones to Harrell (17 points in the first half) slammed the half to an end as Louisville took a 43-30 lead into halftime.
Louisville quickly expanded their lead to 20 at the start of the second half as Minnesota’s shooting woes continued (31% shooting at the half). Gopher senior guard Deandre Mathieu didn’t score his first points of the game until almost 4 minutes had passed in the second half. The upperclassman finished with 6 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 turnovers.
Despite the large lead, Louisville also continued to have foul trouble. Blackshear committed his fourth foul 4 minutes after the second half began. Anton Gill and Chinanu Onuaku also had 4 fouls with over 14 minutes to play.
The Gophers brought the score to 40-52 with an 8-0, 2 min run but once again Louisville responded. Harrell made a layup, Jones stole the ball from Mason and Rozier dunked the turnover into 2 points. Rozier than stole the ball from Hollins and tossed it to Jones, who assisted Harrell in slamming the lid on the game. The Cards scored 6 points in 35 seconds off turnovers and transition offense.
Minnesota shut down Louisville’s transition game for a short time and was able to cut the lead to 9 (62-53) with 7:36 left. As happened all night, just as the Gophers began to re-energize, a U of L player answered. Snider pulled Louisville’s half-court offense out of a funk with a 3-pointer and the Cardinals never looked back. Final score, 81 – 68.
Last season Louisville’s defense was one of the best in the nation. Averaging 10 steals per game (2nd in NCAA) and 17.2 forced turnovers per game (2nd in NCAA) they were tops in turnover margin with almost +7. Tonight shows this season won’t be different. They had 11 steals and forced 18 turnovers, good for a +3 turnover margin.
Most of UL’s success came from that defense. The half-court offense is an area to watch going forward. It needs work.
Louisville’s depth is also something to keep an eye on. At one point during the game, Rozier and Harrell had a combined 39 points while the rest of the team had managed only 21.
Jones played a solid game. He finished with 13 points and while he shot just 31% from the field, his defensive play shined.
Onuaku really didn’t play up to his potential but his coaches were high on him in the offseason. He fouled out with over 12 minutes left. His stat line of 0 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 turnover leaves something to be desired.
Fouls and missed free throws from Minnesota made them their own worst enemy in the first half. 18 fouls, 6-16 free throws. U of L, at one point in the 1st half, had more free throw attempts than field goal attempts. U of M matched Louisville’s point production in the second half but couldn’t overcome the halftime deficit.
Junior Joey King had a disappointing night. Following his team’s trend, he had only 2 points – 2 free throws, and went 0-4 shooting.
There weren’t too many positives to take from Minnesota’s play but Hollins had a standout game. With 22 points, the senior led his team and made plays when they needed him.
Harrell led all scorers with 30 points and 7 rebounds. His offseason shooting program paid off as he went 3-4 from the 3-pt arc.
Rozier led both teams with 4 assists.
The Armed Forces Classic next year will be in Okinawa, Japan and will feature Gonzaga vs. Pittsburgh. In 2016, it will be held at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the attack. The double header will pit Kansas vs. Indiana and Arizona vs. Michigan St.
Cover photo by Getty Images
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