I remember in late-October a lot of us suggesting the Cardinals could carry an unbeaten non-conference record into Rupp on New Year's Eve. Then, over the next several weeks, the team took punch after punch as if caught in the middle of a Pacquiao/Mayweather fight. What? That hasn't happened yet? Anyway, you remember the punches since many are still stinging. Punches like Blackshear's torn labrum, Van Treese's reinjured patella, the one-two punch of Siva's concussion and sprained ankle, Justice's broken nose, Russ's stiff neck, Marra's torn ACL, Kuric's sprained MCL, and the body blows of Henderson's multiple ailments. By that point, we were sure that Ware would never put on a Louisville uniform.
Fast-forward to last Saturday when the Cardinals entered Rupp with an unbeaten non-conference record. What? Unbeaten? Remember when Rocky knocked out Apollo Creed? Rocky's eye was swolen, his face bruised, his body numb. But, he was standing. This is how I viewed our team as they took the court against UK, especially after a narrow loss to a good Georgetown team just 3 days prior. The Cardinals lost and staggered back down I-64 to Louisville.
Though back-to-back losses have raised many eyebrows and prompted even more vocal crticisms, I still expect this team to prevail. They have a proven guy in their corner and unmatched heart and grit. But, I believe there are eight things we should all consider and understand:
1. They are still not healthy. It takes a long time to recover from the punches this team has taken and a lot of guys are playing through pain. Credit Coach Pitino for adjusting practices and gameplans based on player availability. Some media "experts" include him in Coach of the Year discussions so far.
2. The offense would look a lot better if open shots were made more consistently. This team is shooting one of the worst percentages in recent history. Poor offense? Maybe. But, Coach Pitino isn't missing layups, dunks, open threes, and front ends of one-and-ones. Quality shooting can make even a poor offensive plan look good.
3. Russ Smith scoring 20+ points is not a good sign. I love Russ. But, without watching a game, any of us could determine how well the team executed on offense by looking at one stat afterwards: Russ's points. If everyone is clicking, Russ is not taking the shots he's taking nor is he getting the amount of minutes to do so.
4. There are zero current prospects for June's NBA draft on this team. Some have had Siva as a late-second round pick. There is plenty of time to change that, but I still don't suspect we will hear anyone's named call this year.
5. The most talented player has yet to play. Blackshear came to us as the best possibility of a one-and-done player we've seen. And, we haven't seen him yet. And, it's probable we won't see THE Wayne Blackshear this season. Not the guy that can give 20-30 minutes of NBA-caliber play per game.
6. The only reliable, available, true center on the team is still more skilled in soccer than in basketball. Dieng is improving "daily." But, he's still rough on both ends of the court. Price is clearly a ways from contributing if Buckles is backing up Gorgui at the 5 spot.
7. Barring further injuries, we shouldn't expect to see much of Price or Nunez this season. We barely saw them in early-season games when the team was most unhealthy. I think Coach Pitino has determined his rotation and these two will only fall further down the depth chart with Buckles' increased health, Ware's increased minutes, and Blackshear's return. Having seen Nunez up close, I think he can be a star in time.
8. Last year's team had many of the same struggles: scoring droughts, rebounding deficiency, poor 3pt shooting, etc. That team did pretty well. This team is more experienced. This team is more talented. This team has a higher ceiling.
Are there areas for concern? Yes. Are they areas for panic? Not in my opinion. They have proven they have the heart of last year's team. We know they always improve offensively during January and February. They've proven they can take punches.
This team was ranked in the 10-13 spots in most preseason rankings. I remember most of us agreed with that assessment. Fourteen games in and they are right there, despite wobbly legs, blurred vision, and busted lips. And, you know that's literal, as well as figurative.
Now, keep those eight things in mind when watching how they respond to last week's punches.