Team Preview: Louisville Cardinals
Coach: Rick Pitino (262-99 at Louisville, 616-227 overall)
2011-2012 Season: 30-10 (10-8 in the Big East): Final Four
Louisville has always been a fascinating place. It’s the home of the Kentucky Derby, bourbon and the headquarters of the most famous chicken restaurants in the world. It’s also the spiritual resting place of Colonel Harland Sanders, the Indiana transplant who made his home and fortune in Kentucky hawking fried goodness in the Bluegrass State. Incidentally, Mr. Sanders died in 1980 – the same year the Cardinals captured their first national championship. While it’s hard to find any evidence the Colonel was a basketball fan, there’s no doubt he would have been a fan of the team’s current incarnation who play defense with the same fervor Sanders showed, defending his Original Recipe of 11 secret herbs and spices… But enough about chicken.
Rick Pitino’s team has three returning starters from a squad that made the final four last year: point guard Peyton Siva, forward Chane Behanen and center Gorgui Dieng. Seniors Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric graduated and left a bit of an offensive hole in their wake, so the returning players will need to pick up the slack. Overall though, the club’s defense-first approach will be what wins them games. Louisville will also be having their swan song in the Big East this year, joining Syracuse (among others) in their exodus to the ACC next season. But, many consider them a final four candidate again this year, and even a national championship contender – so they could certainly make their last year in the conference a memorable one.
Strongside: Defense. The Cardinals’ full court press can be very overwhelming to teams that can’t keep pace with them. They cause plenty of turnovers and are averaging 12 steals a game so far – good for third in the NCAA. With their quick-footed team they’ll have no trouble putting up points in the transition game. Also, last season Dieng had a massive 128 blocks and if he can put up anywhere close to that we’ll be seeing some pretty frustrated opponents. He and Behanen can also rebound well at both ends of the court (they both average around 8.0 per game). Guard Russ Smith has also been something of a revelation. He’s blossomed in his junior year and leads the team with an average of 20.3 points and 28 turnovers through the first nine games. Wayne Blackshear has fit in well in his first year as a starter, and their solid bench, with freshman Montrezl Harrell, and (George Mason transfer) Luke Hancock, can bail out the starters if needed.
Weakside: Shooting. It’s strange to imagine basketball players at the college level re-learning how to shoot the ball. It stands to reason they’ve got themselves this far with a decent shot. But, re-learning is exactly what Rick Pitino had Peyton Siva do by having him watch, and mimic, Ray Allen tapes (actually, others also took part in the exercise). Last season he shot 40.2 per cent from the field, which was part of the reason the team’s overall percentage sat at 223rd in the country. It will be hard for them to take that next step without Siva getting better production. So far this year he’s boosted it up to 42.9, which is better, but still leaves something to be desired. And as a whole, the team is fairly abysmal from beyond the arc. But they were pretty successful last season with weak shooting so maybe we should just keep the criticism to ourselves. You are allowed to make fun of their arena’s name though… It’s called the KFC Yum! Center, a perfect storm of cheap marketing and stupidity all rolled into one.
All Told: The team’s been cruising along this year using their crushing defense to roll over teams like Miami of Ohio, College of Charleston, and UMKC, with scores like 80-39, 80-38, and 99-47. It hasn’t been pretty for the minnows. The lone blemish was a loss to Duke down in the Bahamas. But, if they can continue to dominate the opposition like that maybe there’s not much need for good shooting numbers after