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December 22, 2011
Cards on the Brink
Louisville's About to be Tested

by John Gasaway

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I really miss Rick Pitino's blog. The Louisville head coach temporarily (I hope) suspended his blogging activities in September, at the height of the Big East's latest re-shuffling. ("I can't wait for my next recruiting trip to New York to find out the Yankees are moving to Chapel Hill.") In a profession plagued by bland coach-speak, Pitino's almost always tart and interesting. I wish he could keep the blog going during the season, but I guess the coach is pretty busy.

Pitino may be as good at coaching as he is at blogging. As proof allow me to direct your attention to the 2011-12 Louisville Cardinals. This team's top two scorers are Kyle Kuric and Gorgui Dieng. Fine players, to be sure, and indeed I'm about to direct some well-deserved praise toward both. Still, I think it's fair to say these particular fine players are not exactly nationally renowned. Too bad: here are the Cardinals, 11-0 and ranked No. 4 in the nation.

You can say that's merely a default ranking, of course. Louisville's played 10 of its 11 games in the friendly environs of the KFC Yum! Center. Then again default rankings can turn out to be correct. If you're a blue-chip Big East program coached by a legend and you reach the holiday season still undefeated, you'll likely be ranked in the top five nationally. It's a presumptive ranking, but not necessarily a presumptuous one. This isn't Pitino's first barbecue.

Anyway, the question's about to become moot. Next week the Cardinals will host Georgetown in the Big East opener for both teams. Three days later Pitino's men will head to Lexington to take on Kentucky in Rupp Arena. I'll go out on a limb here and say that two-game stretch will advance our knowledge of Louisville dramatically. We're on the eve of discovery with this group, but in the meantime here's how the Cards look to me:

We're yet to see this undefeated No. 4-ranked team at its best.
Just how banged up has Louisville been this year? When my colleague Andy Katz has to resort to alphabetical order simply to organize the entirety of your team's injuries, it's probably not a good sign.

That being said this team is, at last, getting healthier before our eyes. True, Mike Marra isn't walking through that door -- he was lost for the year when he tore an ACL in the second game of the season -- and Pitino will have to wait a while longer before highly-touted freshman wing Wayne Blackshear (shoulder) joins the fun. But in just the past few days Rakeem Buckles, Elisha Justice, and Kevin Ware have all either surfaced for the first time this year or resurfaced. The rotation is looking deeper and healthier all the time.

This defense is probably as good as we think it is.
The Cardinals won a 64-possession game against Arkansas State by the score of 54-27, and the important thing to know there is that John Brady's Red Wolves are actually a halfway decent opponent. So this is another Pitino-variety strong defense, one that's going to carry the Cardinals through thick and thin this year, right? Probably. Dieng's blocking 11 percent of opponent's two-point attempts during his minutes, while 6-6 freshman Chane Behanan has proven to be highly effective on the defensive glass. On paper this is one of the best defenses in the country, one that creates a lot of turnovers but has also held opponents to just 1.10 points per "effective" (turnover-less) possession. There is however one dark cloud on this horizon. Few observers besides Pitino himself seem to have noticed, but Louisville's last five opponents (Vanderbilt, IUPUI, Fairleigh-Dickinson, Memphis, and College of Charleston) have shot 42 percent from beyond the arc.

This offense may be better than we think.
As the heath of this team improves and players become accustomed to one another, it's likely this offense can grow more effective even as the schedule becomes more challenging. This season so far the Cardinals are making almost exactly half of their twos -- not amazing, but not bad either. Dieng's been a monster on the offensive glass. Junior point guard Peyton Siva won't win any medals for shooting accuracy, but he sprays assists around like a Big East-styled Kendall Marshall (while also adding a little something called defense). And if Kuric starts hitting threes (so far he's shooting 33 percent from outside) like we know he can (last year he shot 45 percent), look out. He's already been amazing inside the arc this season, draining 66 percent of his twos.

"Controlling the pace" against Pitino is overrated.
Louisville's fastest game of the year was of course their 95-87 win at home over Memphis last Saturday, a track meet that clocked in at a (somewhat foul-inflated) 85 possessions. Conversely the Cards' slowest game of the season was their 59-54 win at home over Ohio back on November 25, a 56-possession contest that would have been right at home in the Big Ten. Both games were in doubt for the balance of 40 minutes, and of course these are merely illustrative cases and not portents. We know in advance that once Louisville gets to Big East play they'll likely average between 65 and 66 possessions for every 40 minutes they play. We know this because that's precisely what's happened in each of the last two seasons. Pace is not likely to be much of a factor.

Russ Smith can really fill up a box score.
As a freshman last year Smith couldn't crack Louisville's veteran rotation, so our effective introduction to the young man has come in this his sophomore campaign. He's made quite an impression. Smith has started three of the Cardinals' 11 games, but whether he's there for the tip-off or comes off the bench he takes what can only be termed a James Dean approach to hoops: live fast, miss a lot of twos, foul out young, and leave a good-looking steal percentage. OK, I'm exaggerating, a little. In truth Smith has fouled out just once this year (against Vanderbilt), but he's recorded four or more fouls in five of his 10 appearances. While he's on the floor he personally accounts for 32 percent of this offense's shot attempts, meaning he's more prominent in this offense than stars like Purdue's Robbie Hummel or West Virginia's Kevin Jones are in theirs -- albeit in fewer minutes. And in the last two games (against Memphis and College of Charleston) Smith's recorded 12 steals in just 101 personal defensive possessions. If he keeps that up he'll win Big East Defensive Player of the Year in a walk, and Pitino will gladly look past some erratic two-point shooting.

The Cardinals haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 2009, when they reached the Elite Eight as the overall No. 1 seed. This is the year that streak comes to an end -- with a vengeance, if this roster's health continues to improve. That should give Pitino more than enough material for his blog in the offseason.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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