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February 2, 2009
The Turnaround
How Louisville Saved Its Season

by John Gasaway

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I really don't understand why Louisville feels obligated to do this back-from-the-dead thing every season. One of these years when Rick Pitino speaks to his team at the first practice in October, he should just tell them it's January.

Be that as it may, my calendar says it's February and that means it's time yet again to wonder what in the world has come over the 'Ville. While it may seem like a lifetime ago, it's really been just over a month since this team was a mere 8-3 and on the brink of falling out of the top 25.

First there was the Cardinals' 68-54 loss to Western Kentucky on November 30 in Nashville. Five wins, later the Cards fell 70-64 to Minnesota at the Stadium Shootout in Glendale, Ariz.

What really sent Louisville's stock plunging, though, was losing at home 55-54 to UNLV on December 31. Coming 11 days after their loss to the Gophers, this third setback clearly had a significant impact on how Pitino's team was perceived nationally: "They can't even defend their home floor!"

That was then. Now, as you may have heard, the team has reeled off nine straight wins. What happened?

The easy answer is...there is no easy answer. If Pitino knew with certainty how to flip this particular switch, he would have done it before the opening tip of the first game. Still, I think there are three things we can say with some degree of confidence about this particular turnaround.

  1. Maybe Louisville wasn't so "dead" after all. In retrospect, it's clear that a lot of us overstated this team's problems when they lost their third game. After all, if we've learned anything over the past few seasons it's that very good teams can be dragged into close early-season games, even on their home floor. Anyone else remember Rhode Island scaring the daylights out of Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in November?

    When you play close games, you're going to lose some of them. Louisville lost a one-point game at home to UNLV, a solid Mountain West team that may well earn an NCAA at-large bid in a season when it looks like very few of those will be awarded to teams outside the six "major" conferences. Maybe that wasn't such a bad loss after all.

    (Of course if the Cardinals really weren't so moribund a month ago, maybe they're really not so invincible now. Their nine-game winning streak includes an overtime win at home against Notre Dame and a one-point victory at Villanova. In other words, Louisville still plays the occasional close game. The difference now is that they're winning them.)

  2. The turnaround has been on one side of the ball. Louisville is an outstanding defensive team, easily the best in the Big East on a per-possession basis in league play.

    No Points for You! Leading Big East Defenses

    Through games of January 31, conference games only
    Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
    Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession

                                 Opp.
                         Pace    PPP      
    1.  Louisville       69.5    0.86  
    2.  Connecticut      66.3    0.96 
    3.  West Virginia    66.6    0.97
    4.  Villanova        69.9    0.98 
    5.  Marquette        69.0    0.99
    6.  Pitt             66.2    1.00
    

    What's more, the Cardinals were excellent on defense right from the start in November. Even when they were losing games, no one was lighting this team up. Louisville's most permissive outing in a losing cause came when Western Kentucky scored 68 points in a 69-possession game, hardly a defensive collapse. So what's really interesting about the Cards' turnaround is that they've stayed exactly the same on defense while improving markedly on offense.

    Believe me, this offense needed improvement. Louisville's shooting in their losses was simply ghastly. In those three games, Pitino's team made just 26 percent of their threes and, even worse, 35 percent of their twos. Georgetown in 1984 is reputed to have had one of the best defenses of all time, but even the Hoyas couldn't have won many games shooting this poorly.

    Fortunately for Cardinal fans, this team has changed its ways, or at least its results. Not that Louisville has suddenly become a juggernaut on offense--in fact they're scoring points in league play at a rate that is right at the Big East average. It's just that making more shots, especially twos, has been enough for a team with this kind of scary-good D to win nine straight.

    Pitino is renowned for playing a distinctive style on offense, shooting a relatively high number of threes yet putting the ball and the decision-making in the hands of forwards or even centers. Last year, the ball and the decisions were in the hands of senior David Padgett. This year, of course, Padgett isn't walking through that door, and it would appear the Cardinals' offense simply needed some time to adjust.

  3. Terrence Williams has been key to Louisville's improvement. For the most part Louisville runs their offense through three players: Earl Clark, Samardo Samuels and Terrence Williams. You've probably heard that Williams is a great talent, a player who can defend, dish assists and even crash the glass. The other thing you've probably heard about Williams, though, is that he's not a very good shooter, particularly from outside.

    Granted he's no Stephen Curry, but this season Williams has actually become a more effective scorer. Given more possessions than he received last year, Williams is responding with better shooting and the lowest turnover rate of his career, leading to a career year on offense. His emergence has been the catalyst for his team's offensive growth.

    If you're a Big East fan and you're thinking this scenario sounds familiar, you're right. Williams' surge is pretty much what we saw from Joe Alexander of West Virginia last year. Now that Alexander is in the NBA, it's easy to assume he was always an incredible performer in college, but in fact he got off to a rocky start last year under new coach Bob Huggins. Then, starting in February, Alexander went off, taking on a larger role in the offense yet at the same time becoming a more efficient scorer. That is a powerful combination, one that Terrence Williams is now executing.

    Louisville has long had a balanced offense, one that's unlikely to give rise to a prodigious scorer like Jodie Meeks or Luke Harangody. Still, within that balance there's room for preferences, and as the season has progressed Williams has shouldered more of the load on offense. Even more importantly, he's had help. Clark absorbs more than his fair share of attention from opposing defenses, while Samuels, in his freshman year, has already proven adept at scoring in the paint and, especially, getting to the line.

Consistently outstanding defense and an offense that's growing in confidence and ability with each passing game--no wonder this team is hard to beat. After all, it's February and this is Louisville.

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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Around the Rim (01/31)
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Embracing the Weakness (02/03)

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