– Once again I don’t think you can say enough about the job Rick Pitino and his staff have done with the 2010-2011 Louisville Cardinals basketball team. Remember, this is a team that had zero preseason All-Big East player selections, was picked to finish 8th by the coaches, and was not ranked in either major Top 25 poll. Pitino himself has shown great humility by constantly deflecting any and all attention from himself and instead telling anyone who will listen that his former protege Mick Cronin should win Big East coach of the year for the job he did turning around Cincinnati and making them a contender again. And while he makes a valid point, and Cronin did an admirable job, he had one major thing on his side that Pitino didn’t – a healthy team. With an ever-rotating roster that saw ten (that’s right TEN) players miss time due to an injury, Pitino still navigated the choppy Big East waters and finished 3rd in the league and will be one of 4 teams to receive a double-bye in New York City next week. In a conference where depth is coveted and one injury can be your ultimate undoing, it’s a true testament to the roster that Pitino has assembled. Aside from Peyton Siva, there’s no McDonald’s All-Americans, just a bunch of gritty team-first guys that all collectively put their egos in check for the greater good of the team. Two of its best players (Preston Knowles and Kyle Kuric) weren’t really even being recruited by any other high-major colleges out of high school and were just a cut above being walk-on’s. The landscape of college basketball has changed dramatically over the last few years and now more than ever you see kids stick around just long enough to earn a spot in the NBA draft. It’s refreshing to see a program like this developing talent and showing a constant arc of positive progression from one year to the next. So next week when the Big East coach of the year is selected you will most likely see Mike Brey, Jamie Dixon, or Steve Lavin’s name called. But to me, if you look at preseason rosters, overall talent, schedules, and injuries, there is no way any other coach than Rick Pitino should win the award.
– How do the Cardinals keep winning games when they get beat on the glass so often??? Easy, one word: Defense. Louisville has masterfully blended a confusing style of defense all season long that encompasses different components of man-to-man, zone, match-up zone, zone-man, and good old full court pressure off of made shots and free-throws. The result has been a suffocating mix of speed, length, and a relentless will to outwork your opponent. Coach Pitino in years past baffled many fans by constantly eluding to the players “not understanding” scouting reports and where to be in certain defensive situations. This team seems to not only grasp these scouting reports, but they thrive off of communication and dissecting even the smalest details of an opponent’s scheme.
– Can this team make a run? I say yes, and here’s why:
1. Defense – see everything outlined above. How else can a team get literally doubled on the backboard and still basically have a game won if it weren’t for a fluke ending.
2. They no longer live and die by the three – Since becoming healthy (for the most part) this team has evolved into a more balanced offensive unit. They can pound the ball into the paint and take advantage of certain mis-matches on the interior, as well as exploit teams on the perimeter with an arsenal of capable long range shooters.
3. The emergence of Peyton Siva – Though he still needs to cut down on the unforced turn-over’s, his overall improved play has been a direct correlation to this team’s success. His pass-first mentality and unselfish play has led to a newfound leadership from the point guard position. Siva’s ability to penetrate into the lane and get past defenders with ease has given Louisville a reliable way to free up the outside shooters and get easy, clean looks for the big men in the paint.
4. King Kyle – It should be noted that Louisville’s leading scorer is Preston Knowles at 14.4 ppg. However, the emergence of Kyle Kuric has been one of the major reasons Louisville finished third in the nation’s toughest conference. With his ability to spread the floor and keep defenders honest behind the three-point line, he’s now added a midrange pull-up shot, and he’s always one of the quickest players down the court on a fast break which has led to countless dunks and lay-ups. He’s now averaging 17.1 ppg over the last nine games – what other team has seemingly added a near 20-point-per-game scorer midway through the season? Quite a weapon, to say the least.
Final Prediction – In this year of uncertainty in college basketball, I say, why can’t Louisville make a run? Are they a better overall team than Ohio State or Kansas? Probably not. But the NCAA Tournament is all about match-up’s and this team can play a variety of styles. If a team wants to slow down the pace and grind it out in the half court, no problem. If a team wants to speed it up and run-and-gun, Louisville will happily oblige. The key to winning games in the Tournament is the ability to be effective against different styles with little time to prepare. And with a roster full of unselfish players willing to listen to a coach who has shown he has what it takes to lead them and make them believe – who’s to say the Cards won’t still be standing when the rest of the deck has fallen?
In all reality, I see an Elite 8 run, assuming they don’t run into the one team that would give them the most problems – Ohio State. But think about that for a second. If you asked any realistic fan before the season started, I would say 90% would have been satisfied just making the Tournament. Now we’re talking about deep runs and potentially one of the most dangerous teams in the entire field.
Here’s to wishful thinking and let the madness begin.