LOUISVILLE — For Louisville’s basketball team and its fans, Sunday’s 71-63 win over SMU at the KFC Yum! Center was mostly good, with a sprinkling of bad.
GOOD: The Cardinals won, bouncing back from Thursday’s disappointing home loss to Memphis.
This time, when the game got tight late, Louisville found a way to pull out the win, something it didn’t do against Memphis.
SMU (11-4, 1-2 in the American Athletic Conference) received votes in last week’s Associated Press poll and has beaten a ranked opponent — Connecticut.
GOOD: Louisville’s defense. The Mustangs came into Sunday’s game shooting 50 percent on the year, including 41.5 percent on 3-pointers. Against Louisville SMU shot 37 percent and 18.2 percent (2 for 11) from 3-point range.
“Their energy was great,” SMU coach Larry Brown said about the Cardinals. “Teams always play hard under (Louisville coach) Rick (Pitino). Their energy was great, and I also thought we took some terrible shots, especially in the first half.”
BAD: The Cardinals couldn’t sustain that defense for 40 minutes. Louisville led 37-20 late in the first half and 37-25 at halftime.
The Mustangs’ 5-0 run to end the first half extended to a 20-5 run into the second half when they pulled within two at 42-40 with 14:52 left in the game.
“Our first half defense was the best we’ve played all year,” Pitino said. “We rotated beautifully and did a lot of great things, got a lot of deflections.
“To be honest with you we got a little tired, a little fatigued, and for a Louisville team you don’t hear that, but Russ (Smith) played 38 minutes, Montrezl (Harrell) played 38, and we had a few guys hurt. When we got fatigued we weren’t as aggressive defensively.
“But we did a very good job on one of the premier point guards in the league, Nic Moore. It was a very good basketball game for us.”
GOOD: Luke Hancock’s continued good play. The senior guard started Sunday, his first start of the season, and responded with 23 points. That followed a 20-point performance Thursday.
“We started running a lot of turn-out plays for Luke this week,” Pitino said, “because he’s not only our best shooter, our best free throw shooter, he’s our best passer, so if he doesn’t have it he’ll throw the ball, and at 6-5 that’s what we were missing. We weren’t getting the ball inside off plays.
“It hasn’t been until the last two games that Luke’s been 100 percent. He’s not 100 percent defensively, but that has nothing to do with his Achilles.”
GOOD: Louisville is the defending national champion.
BAD: Living up to that standard can be tough.
“We talked all week about unbridled enthusiasm,” Pitino said, “just being as enthusiastic as we could be all week. We were a little down after the Memphis game because we felt we gave it away.
“I told them to stop trying to be last year’s team because you’re not that team. Just be yourself, try to be the best you can be, improve everything, and come March we’ll see who we are.
“Stop trying to be last year’s team because you’re not. It’s not a lack of ability, it’s just a different basketball team.”
GOOD: Seeing two Hall of Fame coaches square off. Pitino and Brown have both done something no other basketball coaches have done. Pitino is the only coach to win two NCAA titles at different schools (Kentucky in 1996 and Louisville in 2013), and Brown is the only head coach with an NCAA title (Kansas in 1988) and an NBA title (Detroit in 2004).
“I’m blown away by how good a coach Larry Brown is,” Pitino said. “You watch seven games on film, you get a great appreciation for the teacher he is with fundamentals. He’s always been a great coach, but to keep that level of excellence after that many years in the pros.
“Coaching the pros is definitely a dog’s life. He’s 240 right now.”
Brown, in his second season at SMU, is 73.
BAD: Free throw shooting. Louisville shot 52.4 percent (11 for 21) and the Mustangs hit 52 percent (13 for 25).
GOOD: There’s nearly a half a season of basketball left. Louisville is now 14-3 overall and 3-1 in the conference.
The Cardinals have 14 games left before the AAC tournament in Memphis.
“Aspire to be that team in March,” Pitino said. “Don’t try to be that team now. We’re going to lose some games. We’re not going to have the record we had last year, and that’s OK as long as we keep getting better. Come March we can be a decent team.”