— Story by Jessica Eley
Sitting on a blue chair in the locker room, recorders and microphones from members of the national media thrust towards his face, Louisville freshman guard Quentin Snider softly answered question after question, exuding the presence of a veteran who already belonged on college basketball’s marquee event.
His third double-digit scoring game in succession in his first NCAA Tournament complete in a Sweet 16 win over North Carolina State, Snider quickly became the latest college basketball neophyte to officially wear the too-naïve-to-know-better label under the white-hot spotlight of March Madness.
Four months ago, Snider was just naïve. Actually, make that even just a week ago.
Snider, who has started the past nine games at point guard, spent a lot of the season having to hear head coach Rick Pitino continually proclaim that his freshman class – including the most recent Kentucky Mr. Basketball in Snider – was light years away from playing any significant part on a team that has reached the Final Four in two of the past three years. Pitino did trust his freshman…as long as you asked him about them in 2017 as juniors.
Snider, off of his 14-point, three-assist performance against the Wolfpack, pointed to the usual struggles of freshman having to navigate the steep learning curve.
“From high school to college it’s a real big transition to the game because, in high school, you can take plays off,” Snider said. “In college you know, you got to play hard every second.”
Pitino, already notoriously stingy to freshman when doling out playing time, decided to point to the battle of the “bulge” as far as Snider’s development was concerned, outlying his message of the class’s maturity…or lack thereof.
“We felt he (Snider) was getting beat defensively every day,” Pitino said, “We felt like, if he could take off six or eight pounds, it would really help his game.”
But the soft-spoken freshman had the opportunity step up during the most crucial part of the Cardinals’ season, albeit out of necessity more than readiness. Louisville’s starting point guard and leading assist man, Chris Jones, was dismissed from the team on Feb. 22 – with only four conference games left and the ACC and NCAA Tournament just around the corner. Snider assumed the starting job, and three uneven performances followed.
When another so-so performance was expected in Louisville’s regular-season finale against the ever parsimonious Virginia defense, Snider, like the mercurial freshman he is still, came up trumps, scoring 11 points, knocking in three three-pointers and having a big hand in a two-point win over the No. 2 Cavaliers to send off the seniors at the KFC Yum! Center a winner.
“That’s when I felt really comfortable with the team and doing what I got to do and it got real comfortable with the coaches,” Snider reminisced on Friday night.
The NCAA Tournament would prove to be a big test for Snider’s burgeoning resolve, and Snider, even with his success in elimination play, couldn’t fully hide his freshman jitters yet.
In the second round in Seattle, the Cardinals scraped by with a 57-55 win over UC Irvine, as Snider scoring 16 points and drained two free throws with 8.9 seconds left to ice the game. If you thought ice was in Snider’s veins, think again.
“That was the game where we just thought we were going to lose,” Snider said, admitting to being scared and overwhelmed at the immediacy a season could end in the pressure cooker of March.
After a team talk led by Pitino, Snider said everyone, from last rotation player to all-conference performer, finally came together as a team. “I never thought we would go this far,” said Snider. “After that UC Irvine game, it was just like, ‘Man the next round is going to be harder against Northern Iowa.’”
Louisville looked much more prepared in its next two NCAA Tournament games, and the epitome of that preparation was Snider, with four players scoring in double figures in both the third round and Sweet 16.
“We prepared real well for Northern Iowa and we prepared real well for NC State, now we’re going to the Elite 8,” Snider said.
The offseason weight loss and the extra reps after practice has indeed paid off for Snider, and even sooner than the coaching staff expected. More impressive than the 24 points Snider has scored in the last two games, he committed no turnovers in 37 minutes of play against North Carolina State.
Snider, sounding like a freshman possibly hiding those first-year jitters, says he now is ready for anything.
“Oh yeah, no fear, no fear at all,” Snider said while chuckling. “Just building up more confidence and always believing in myself.”
[Cover photo (Snider) courtesy of Elsa/Getty Images]