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We have seen enough to know we are very good, and have lived up to the pre-season hype, and then some, through the first part of our schedule. How far we can go in March is still anyone's guess, however.
So you may have thought this was just a gimmicky way of getting out of writing both a game preview and a season preview. Alas, it was. But, since this was a slow week, I had some time to go back and look at our past few games, think about how the team is gelling and decide that we are really, really good this year and that this is, in fact, our best shot at a championship in a long, long time. The 2009 team was not beating UConn in the Final Four, we had a shot last year if we beat UK but that was a 3-in-10 proposition. The 2005 team ran into one of the better college teams of the last decade and even had they got by Illinois, would have had to beat a great team in UNC. But this year, looking at the landscape of college basketball and seeing us against Duke and the other competition in the Bahamas, I think everyone's expectations are reasonable and on point. Don't buy your tickets to Atlanta yet, but try to enjoy this season because we will not have a team like this for a long time, if ever again.
Tubes full of digital ink have been spilled about the personalities and character of the Cardinals, and it gets a little weird sometimes, so sorry about that. Today let's just look at them as basketball players and see how they playing, how they are fitting in and what sort of impact they can have on the rest of the season.
Basically, the defense is suffocating and better than any college defense in recent memory. Everyone plays hard, we can pressure the ball or play half-court defense, we don't tire because we can keep bringing fresh guys off the bench, and everyone has bought into the idea that we are going to win with defense, defense, defense. But the way things are shaking out, we have 4 "main guys" and a bunch of role players, some of whom happen to be McDonald's All-Americans.
Imagine if you will there is a college basketball team ranked in the Top 5 (and even top 2) for much of the season. Imagine if that basketball team had a guy that scored 20 points a game, led the team in steals and had the stamina to play almost the entire game at maximum effort.
These stats come after a season in which he led his team to the Final 4 and scored 30 points against a team of future NBA players on the road in the biggest regular season game of his career. Would you be more shocked if this player were projected as a 1) lottery pick 2) late first round pick or 3) undrafted into the professional basketball national association?
My point is that narrative dominates sports just like it does every other part of our culture, and the narrative around Russ Smith that produced the "Russdiculous" nickname sells him extremely short in terms of his basketball talent and long-term professional potential.
As it relates to the 2012-13 Cardinals, part of our offense is basically Russ Doing Russ Things, and we really need that to stay part of our offense. In the closest game of the season, what would have been a bad loss against Illinois State, we needed every one of his 24 points, especially the points he kept getting from the line to keep us in the game and allow us to set up the press. Sure he was 1-6 from 3, but the team shot just 24% from 3, so on nights like that, we need free throws and layups, and Russ gets both of those.
The point guard and senior co-captain has gotten off to a great start, he and Russ combining in the backcourt to lead the team in points, steals, pressure and being called a m---rf---r by Hall of Fame opposing coaches. He has shot a respectable 34% from 3 and has greatly improved his ability to hit layups in traffic and get to the rim. It doesn't seem like the offense is entirely dependent on his running a pick and roll and creating a shot for someone (although to be honest I'm not exactly sure what the offense is doing yet this year but that's for later). He has kept his foul trouble to a minimum and has been dishing out assists (and would have a lot more if guys were finishing and if Gorgui were healthy). In general, he has been doing everything we've needed and more (3 point shooting and pull up jumpers over screens) and he and Russ are fun, fun, fun to watch and cheer for. Love these guys.
It seemed to me like Chane hasn't really been trying this season. That doesn't mean he hasn't been working hard (he's been a monster on the glass and is finishing his dunk attempts majestically and forcefully. That said, he still has too many dunk opportunities become short-shot opportunities and is finishing those at a lower clip than we need). Where was I? Oh, it's not that he isn't working hard, it just seems like he is much more comfortable and relaxed and letting things come to him a little more. Last year it looked like he was forcing things at times. This year, he is our third best scorer and leading rebounder, and gets rebounds in an aggressive and dominating way.
He has been using the Florida shot ("for the lead!") a lot more but with a lower % than he should be getting on those. Having Harrell has helped push him, he's just got to start finishing his opportunities. It will help him when Gorgui comes back because they obviously have interior passing chemistry and Gorgui's offensive advantages over SVT will free some space.
Chane has obviously been hurt by teams packing the lane, and he has had to get most of his chances off put-backs or catching tough interior passes from guards. His whole demeanor is different this year, and I think in a positive way, and I think he is pacing himself for a big March run and a jump to the next level.
Wayne "Quit Calling Me Fat Wayne I Have Feelings You Guys" Blackshear
The guy everyone was excited about - but Pitino cautioned us not to get too excited about - has started to play more and more like the Wayne of our dreams. He seems to be settling for the 3 too much, and is only shooting 30% from behind the line, but the last couple games his shot has looked much better. He also has a killer pull-up jumper that he should be able to get 3-4 more times per game than he is getting now. He almost had a top-10 dunk on Charleston and just missed it, which is emblematic of his year so far. He and Luke are basically splitting time equally (even if it seems like Wayne disappears for long stretches onto the bench) and hopefully as the year goes on that turns into a 2/3rd 1/3rd split as Wayne finds his place in the offense. He also seems to be the most athletic and most likely to guard an opposing team's best player (assuming it is not their PG or SG, as Russ would take them) and hopefully his defense and rebounding continue to improve.
Basically, we all need more Wayne in our life, and the quality of guys around him has helped him ease into the season much more than if we were relying on him to score 20 points per game and handle the ball. He is basically acting as a role player right now, and if a team has someone like Wayne filling in as a role player who can every so often dominate a game (which he has shown flashes of), then that team can make a deep, deep run.
The expectations of Hancock were so unfair that anything short of a LeBron 30-7-7 every night would have been a disappointment. Throw in that every minute he plays means that Wayne Blackshear is not playing, Luke is really in a tough spot. If Pitino had sold him as someone who could play without making a lot of mistakes, was a team-first player who could make #Marrapasses and hit an occasional open 3 and made his living off YMCA-old-man-crafty shots, then I think people would be pleasantly surprised. In the opening game, on the first 6 or 7 Manhattan possessions of the second half, Luke caused turnovers or got stops on like every one of them.
It didn't show up on the stat sheet, and you would probably not have noticed because his abysmal 3 point shooting would have stood out at you, but he made a real impact on the outcome of that game. He is also recovering from injury and looks a little slow - especially on offense - but he is a nice piece of this team. Hopefully Wayne's development and Luke's improved shooting turns that piece into "15 minutes a game, hits open 3s and gets higher assist-per-minute ratio than anyone else on the team" and not the "Luke is our best player you guys just don't see it because he does things fans don't understand" piece.
Trez is a perfect role player for this team - unlimited energy off the bench, an athletic as hell big man who can finish better than anyone else on the team when he gets the ball anywhere near the basket. He doesn't have pressure on him to carry the offense or the defense and when he comes in he goes all out. His two blocks on the same possession against Charleston is the defining moment for him, but all the dunks and screams against Duke were pretty good highlights too. Seemed to be some personal redemption going on there. Anyway, will only get better as the year goes on, if he develops a short-range jumper will be a huge weapon. A luxury to have someone like this as a role player, and another reason why we are poised to make a real run.
Biggest question mark for me this season, both before it started and after the first set of games, is how Ware would fit into the offense. He gets to the rim but seems to miss a lot of shots, his jumper looks good but he obviously needs to get more consistent from 3. The role I would love to see for him would be to spell Russ and harass the crap out of the other team's point guard while Russ gets a breather, and occasionally go off for 15 points by getting to the rim against a bad defensive team. Basically he is Russ without the charisma and with a little less confidence.
SVT! SVT! Probably the feel-good story of the year so far is how he has stepped up to replace an injured Gorgui. Just keep doing what you are doing, big man, and when Gorgui comes back, just keep doing what you are doing for 13.5 minutes per game or so. Maybe hit an elbow jumper now and again to keep defenses honest. But just, you know, you do you.
Losing Gorgui to injury was a terrible thing for this team, I don't buy the whole "but it gave SVT a chance to develop" thing because we'd rather have a healthy Gorgui for the whole season and SVT would have developed in stretches. In his pre-injury time, Gorgui was playing better than he ever had as a Cardinal, was making the mid-range shot and finding open guys when the zone collapsed on him, and was blocking the ball. He also did this:
When he comes back, hopefully by the UK game, it may take a little bit for him to get integrated back into the offense, but by March he will again be the focal point.
So there you go. Apologizes to the rest of the guys on the team, but time permits what time permits.
Oh and we are going to beat the Roos by a couple touchdowns.
NOBODY. SAY. ANYTHING.
This is the year. Can't help myself.