SYRACUSE, N.Y.—It took Rick Pitino two sentences in his post-game news conference to pinpoint the top reason that could keep Syracuse out of the Final Four.
"We knew we had to keep them [Syracuse] out of transition or we weren't going to win this," Pitino said.
Louisville slowed the pace of this game down to a rate Syracuse hasn't seen this season. The Orange's up-tempo attack is used to games of 70 to 80 possessions; against the Cardinals, Jim Boeheim's club got the ball a season low 57 times.
Pitino's offense used a methodical approach to stop the Orange and then employed a 2-3 matchup zone to slow the 'Cuse down on the offensive end.
That's where Wesley Johnson needs to be a superstar.
On Sunday, he wasn't. Nor was he against Connecticut or even Providence and Cincinnati.
During the past four games, Johnson is 13-43 from the field and 4-16 from three-point land. His shooting slump extends to the Cincinnati game before he injured his leg against Providence and his hand against Connecticut.
"My body isn't 100 percent, but I'm not ready to start blaming it on body," Johnson said. "I'm just missing shots."
The Orange cannot afford Johnson to miss shots when its forced to play a half-court game. Every contender has a go-to guy who's likely going to star at the next level and can get his team a bucket when the offensive sets fail.
Johnson is supposed to be that guy for the Orange, but he hasn't lived up to that billing. Against North Carolina in Madison Square Garden and Marquette at home are really the only two times this season that Johnson truly took over the game.
The majority of Johnson's other contests he'll occasionally create his own shot, but mostly he waits for passes from his teammates that create an easy basket or wide open shot attempt for him.
One of Boeheim's greatest criticisms of Johnson this season has been that he's not assertive enough. Boeheim should be happy Johnson took 20 shots, many of which were within the offense.
Boeheim shouldn't be happy that Johnson kept shooting when something was clearly amiss in Johnson's game. The junior transfer made it clear he didn't want to put any blame on his body, but it's hard to dismiss his injuries.
Most of his misses were short—well short, in fact. A handful of his shots barely grazed the front edge of the rim, a good sign his legs weren't there.
If this was the case, Syracuse should be ok. The offense needs Johnson to be assertive, because teams are going to go after shooter Andy Rautins.
“They decided to take him away," Boeheim said. "They just decided to guard him wherever he was. That’s what we’ve seen every game for the last four or five games."
With Johnson struggling and Louisville playing practically a box-and-one on Rautins, the Orange needed scoring from other options, but weren't prepared to do so.
Both Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine echoed those sentiments following the loss.
If Johnson's woes are actually just a reflection of Johnson's talent, then Syracuse is in trouble. No one knew how effective he'd be after leaving Iowa State. After feasting on smaller, less-talented competition, it looked like Johnson was a Player of the Year candidate.
If Johnson is in fact just a very good player, but not a great player or a superstar, then the Orange aren't a Final Four favorite.
The wing's struggles could also be simply put under too close of a microscope because of his recent bumps and bruises. This could just be the everyday shooting slump that plagues all players.
The Orange better hope Johnson's slide is just a slump, and not his skill.
Its run to Indianapolis depends on it.
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