Rick Pitino, unlike many coaches, isn’t afraid to jinx his team.
Ask the Louisville coach if his team is ready to make a run deep into the postseason, an idea that has been brought up repeatedly by Basketball Prospectus’ John Gasaway and Ken Pomeroy in recent weeks, and Pitino refuses to demur. In fact, he welcomes the suggestion that his Cardinals can make a run to the Final Four and possibly the national championship.
“I really do think we can make a deep run,” Pitino said. “I think everything is in place for that to happen. We have a talented team that’s well balanced with a good group of leaders. I like our chances of winning every time we step on the floor.”
Louisville (24-6) will play its biggest game yet Saturday afternoon. It visits Georgetown at the Verizon Center in Washington with the Big East title on the line in the regular-season finale for both squads. Both teams are 14-3 in the conference.
While Louisville appeared to be one of the teams to beat in the Big East coming into the season, the Cardinals fell off the radar for a time. They suffered a home loss to Dayton during the non-conference portion of the schedule, then were knocked off at Freedom Hall by Cincinnati in the conference opener.
Yet, Louisville has rebounded and is now No. 7 in the Pomeroy Ratings. The biggest reason for the turnaround has been health as senior forward David Padgett missed 10 games, and senior guard Juan Palacios sat out nine, because of injuries.
“Having those two guys back in the lineup has made all the difference in the world for us,” Pitino said. “They are veterans who have been through so much and having David Padgett in the lineup is like having another coach on the floor.
“You take away two senior leaders from any team and it is going to have an effect. I’m sure if you took Roy Hibbert and Patrick Ewing Jr. out of the Georgetown’s lineup, they would have struggled at times as well.”
Louisville’s struggles are behind it now as the Cardinals take a nine-game winning streak into Saturday’s showdown. If anything, they seem to be peaking in early March.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet,” Padgett said. “As well as we’ve played at times, I think we’re capable of better.”
Padgett is leading Louisville in scoring with an 11.7 average, but the secret to the Cardinals’ success is outstanding depth as they have eight players averaging at least six points a game. Junior forward Terrence Williams (11.3), sophomore guard Jerry Smith (10.8) and sophomore forward Earl Clark (10.4) are also scoring in double figures.
Williams has been an all-around performer; he is also averaging 7.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists while ranking 29th in the nation in percentage of minutes played (90.4). Smith is 71st in effective field-goal percentage (60.4) and 97th in offensive rating (119.8). Clark is grabbing 8.0 rebounds a game.
Louisville’s defense has been outstanding--fifth in the nation in adjusted efficiency (84.9), seventh in effective field goal percentage allowed (43.3) and 25th in block percentage (13.5). The Cardinals also rank 32nd in adjusted offensive efficiency at 114.5.
Junior guard Andre McGee believes one of Louisville’s enduring qualities this season has been its ability to adjust.
“We’ve played so many different teams with so many different styles,” McGee said. “We can play a fast-paced game or we can play at a slow pace. We’ve won a lot of different ways and beaten a variety of teams. I think that’s going to help us in the NCAA tournament. We should be prepared for anything we face.”
Two Steps From The Dance
Wagner raised its record to 23-7 and set a school record for victories Thursday night by beating Long Island in the first round of the Northeast Conference tournament.
That the Seahawks have won 23 games and are two steps from the NCAA Tournament is amazing when you consider they rank 209th in the nation with an adjusted defensive efficiency of 104.4 and 256th in adjusted offensive efficiency with a 95.3 mark. Furthermore, they are just No. 243 in the Pomeroy Ratings.
On top of all that, Wagner is the seventh-worst free throw shooting team in the land at 59.8 percent.
“We are what we are,” said Wagner coach Mike Deane, who has taken Siena, Marquette and Lamar to the NCAAs. “I can kick more foul shots into the basket than our guys make and we’ve barely scored more points than our opponents.
“But we have a knack for winning close games. We have a veteran group that just knows how to find a way to win.”
Indeed, Wagner has been the luckiest team in the nation according to Pomeroy’s statistics, fueled by a 5-0 record in overtime games. Seahawks senior guard Mark Porter attributes that to having a veteran lineup that includes fifth-year senior Durell Vinson, fourth-year seniors Porter and James Ulrich and fourth-year juniors Joey Mundweiler and Jamal Smith.
“It helps a lot being out there time and time again with the same guys and knowing they have your back,” Porter said. “You know where everyone is going to be and you know how to come together. That give you that little bit of breathing room that you need.”
Perry Watson Resigns
Detroit’s program will go in a new direction in 2008-09 after a 7-23 record this year as coach Perry Watson resigned following the Titans’ first-round loss to Wright State in the Horizon League tournament this week.
Watson, 57, went 261-198 in 15 seasons but just 103-110 in the last seven years and not taken the Titans to the NCAAs since 1999. He took a leave of absence this season in early January and never returned to the bench.
“We had some very good years and a couple of disappointing ones,” Watson said. “The challenges were great, but it was certainly rewarding to have great assistant coaches and some many appreciative players. I wish the Titans success as they move forward.”
Speculation on possible replacements for Watson center almost exclusively around people who have ties to the city, among them Detroit assistants Kevin Mondro, Garland Mance and Carlos Briggs, Michigan assistant Mike Jackson, Tennessee assistant Tony Jones, Utah assistant Jeff Smith and Ohio assistant Bacari Alexander.
Team to Watch
Brigham Young is this week’s Team To Watch after wrapping up the Mountain West regular-season championship Wednesday night with a win over Wyoming. It was the Cougars’ third straight victory and 12th in their last 13 games as they improved to 24-6 overall and 13-2 in the conference.
Senior forward Keena Young is leading the way as he is averaging a double-double with 18.0 points and 10.0 rebounds.
Though sophomore forward Jonathan Tavernari is 63rd in the country in percentage of shots (31.2) and junior center Trent Plaisted is 66th in percentage of possessions (29.3), junior guard Lee Cummard has been the most productive BYU player. He is 10th in effective field goal percentage (65.9) and 33rd in offensive rating (124.7).
Plaisted is averaging 16.2 points and 8.1 rebounds while ranking 68th in free throw rate (65.8) and 71st in defensive rebounding percentage (22.4). Cunnard is scoring 15.8 points a game and Tavernari’s scoring average is 13.1
Brigham Young’s defense has been outstanding as it is fifth in the country in effective field goal percentage allowed (43.2) and 16th in adjusted efficiency (88.3).
Games of the Week
The top five games for the final weekend of the regular season from March 7-9, according to the Pomeroy Ratings, with all times Eastern
No. 7 Louisville at No. 9 Georgetown, Saturday, March 8, 12 p.m., CBS
No. 12 Stanford at No. 25 Southern California, Saturday, March 8, 2 p.m., CBS
No. 1 Kansas at No. 18 Texas A&M, Saturday, March 8, 4 p.m., CBS
No. 6 North Carolina at No. 5 Duke, Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 14 Michigan State at No. 31 Ohio State, Sunday, 12 p.m., Big Ten Network
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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