Team Preview: 2014 Louisville Cardinals
By: Rob Kirkaldy
2012-2013 Record: 35-5 (14-4 Big East Conference games)
Coach: Rick Pitino (629-234)
When the last buzzer sounded last season, Rick Pitino’s team cut down the net at the Georgia Dome after being crowned National Champions.
With enough returning players and Pitino being named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the coach’s predictions of a “mini-dynasty” at Louisville seemed to make sense. There was every expectation that the Cardinals would be back in the Final Four, if not repeat champions. Pitino’s contract has him in Cardinals red until the end of Hillary Clinton’s first term. Fans comfortably booked tickets to Final Four matchups.
But as conference play begins in earnest, there are creeping doubts about Louisville’s ability to win big in a surprisingly competitive American Athletic Conference. Following a key loss to Memphis and with the white-hot Cincinnati Bearcats atop the division, it could be a long road to March for the Louisville Cardinals.
Strongside: Before anyone panics, we are still talking about the 2013 National Champion Louisville Cardinals, coached by Rick Pitino. This is still a team with a monster full-court press, Luke Hancock (most outstanding beard), Russ Smith and the whole Yum! Center behind it. This is a team with a backcourt most coaches would kill for.
Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear are playing well, with Harrell seamlessly stepping in to take over from the departed Chase Behanan.
Now as conference play begins in earnest, the Bearcats sit atop the AAC, riding a seven-game winning streak.
That is not a typo. In a conference with Memphis and Louisville, the Bearcats are 3-0 and Rick Pitino’s protégé is in the running for Coach of the Year.
Weakside: Against Memphis, Smith and Hancock both scored in the double digits. But poor rebounding and failure to adjust defensive strategy cost the team. And the loss to 18th-ranked Kentucky was both an upset and a wake-up call for Louisville: to win the title, the Cardinals will need to step their game up. Quickly.
Meanwhile, personnel issues are forcing changes to the Cards’ roster. Kevin Ware—who suffered that graphic compound fracture in last year’s tournament—will redshirt the rest of the season after attempting a comeback. Behanan has been “dismissed” after disciplinary issues. Now would be a particularly bad time for Blackshear’s shoulder issues to return…
And things don’t get any easier down the stretch. Unlike Cincinnati, for whom most key matchups will be played just before the tournament, Louisville is headed for a slog straight through to March. With two games apiece against Houston and Cincinnati in the next two months, there is no rest for Rick Pitino’s squad. By the time they face Memphis again on March 1, this Louisville team could be limping into the postseason.
All Told: Back in October, Pitino told the Louisville Courier-Journal his team was “one year away from a potential mini-dynasty.” Well, he might have meant that the dynasty would go on hiatus until Louisville graduates to the ACC after a year in the American.
Rob Kirkaldy is a lifelong basketball fan who has contributed work to a number of Canadian publications. He’s lived and worked in four countries, on one planet.