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December 16, 2009
Louisville's Early Struggles
This Time's Different

by John Gasaway

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Just ten short months ago I wrote the following:

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.

Sadly, Coach Pitino did not take my sage advice. You know the rest. My calendar says it’s mid-December, meaning Louisville must be losing games right about now. Sure enough the Cardinals are 5-3, coming off consecutive home losses to Charlotte and Western Carolina. Indeed, Louisville’s Pre-New-Year’s Struggle Brought to You by Lowe’s Home Improvement has become an annual rite as dependable and cherished as Maui or the ACC yet again winning the ACC-Big Ten Chall…Hey, wait a minute….

Could this actually be the year Louisville does not come back from the dead? Let’s review the Cards’ past and present before we hazard a guess at their future.

Your impressions are indeed correct. Louisville really does do this every year.
Seriously, it’s uncanny. Write this down for next season: Pitino’s team will lose one game in November and two games in December. That’s how it played out this year (UNLV, Charlotte, Western Carolina), last year (Western Kentucky, Minnesota, UNLV), and the year before that (BYU, Dayton, Purdue).

Of course, not all losses are necessarily bad losses, much less catastrophic ones. Of the six teams that beat Louisville early in the season last year and in November-December 2007, four went on to make the NCAA tournament that season. The other two--UNLV last year and Dayton in 2007-08--were clearly top-100-caliber teams. The same is true again this season: UNLV, Charlotte, and Western Carolina all currently lurk in that commonly overlooked but manifestly dangerous 80-90 range in colleague Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. It’s almost as if Pitino’s a glutton for punishment, scheduling tough opponents that most fans won’t realize are tough.

Then again just because Pitino’s teams do the same thing every year doesn’t mean every Louisville team is the same.
Last December’s three-loss Cardinal team was still a statistically dominant group even with three blemishes on their record, one that played incredible defense from the very start of the season in November. This year’s three-loss Cardinals, however, are not nearly as scary on paper.

Each of these things is not like the other
Dueling and grueling Decembers in Louisville (no fooling!), 2008 vs. 2009
PPP: points per possession Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

               PPP   Opp. PPP     EM 
December 2008  1.08    0.84     +0.24
December 2009  1.10    0.97     +0.13

Keep in mind that last year Louisville didn’t continue to outscore opponents by 0.24 points per trip all season long, of course. Against the notably more robust competition provided by Big East opponents, that number fell to a still very impressive scoring margin of 0.14 points per trip. Apply a similar shrink-wrap to the numbers for this year’s Cardinals and it’s not too difficult to imagine a Big East outcome in 2010 somewhat more earth-bound than last year’s gaudy 16-2.

For the first time in recent memory, opposing offenses don’t fear the ‘Ville.
Pitino has thrived in Louisville with a unique hybrid of perimeter-oriented offense and attacking D. (I’ve always been a little surprised that the Louisville Way, which previously was the Providence Way and the Kentucky Way, isn’t more widely imitated. Speaking stylistically, elite recruits tend to like both halves of that hybrid.) The Cardinals are still firing up threes this season but what’s different now is that opponents are getting open looks and indeed hitting their shots. If you’re Pitino the biggest red-flag to arise even in murky December might be this: Louisville’s opponents so far this season (Arkansas, East Tennessee State, Morgan State, Appalachian State, UNLV, Stetson, Charlotte, Western Carolina) are shooting better from the floor than did the historically scary monster known as the Big East last year. That doesn’t bode well for the ‘Ville this year.

Accept Samardo Samuels for what he already is: A scorer and a foul-magnet.
Sometimes I think if Samuels only had the proper scary-on-D teammate--is Cole Aldrich available?--people would start to notice the sophomore’s small but growing Tyler Hansbrough-esque body of work in the area of drawing fouls. That is where Samuels excels. This year he’s drawing an incredible 8.5 fouls for every 40 minutes he plays. Every one of those whistles weakens the opposing front line. True, if Samuels were shooting better than 68 percent from the line, he’d be inflicting even more pain on opponents. Still, having a big guy who makes more than half his twos and gets to the line this often frees up a lot of looks for a perimeter-oriented offense. Give Samuels his due in that department.

Instead it seems like he’s always surrounded by an expectant ring of fans and writers who are holding hands and chanting, “Double-doubles against quality opponents starting…now!” Hey, maybe those double-doubles will indeed commence at some point--stranger things have happened. But what I do know already is that Samuels was not strong on the defensive glass last year (defensive rebound percentage: 10.1) and he has not been strong there so far this year (13.0). Simply put, if you’re a Cardinal fan and you want a defensive board, you’re going to place a call to Jared Swopshire or, I guess, to newbie Rakeem Buckles (during the roughly 12 seconds that he logs between committing each foul).

Lastly, there’s nothing automatic or even normal about the Januarys and Februarys Louisville’s been recording lately.
In the past three years the Cardinals have gone 42-10 in Big East play, posting a sterling .808 winning percentage over that span. No other team in the conference has come close to matching that level of success since 2007. Based on what I’ve seen these past few weeks, I think it’s unlikely that Louisville will match that level of success in 2010.

John also does pre-mortems on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

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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