"We are not a very good basketball team right now. We just have to keep working. It is obvious, I don't have to explain it to you. There is only one answer to not being a good basketball team and that is to keep working and spending time trying to become one. There is no substitute for hard work."---Rick Pitino following a 61-49 loss to Kentucky on Dec. 16
Louisville was 5-4 with losses to Dayton on a neutral floor and Kentucky and Massachusetts at home, and there were no more quality wins to be had before they entered play in a conference that had seen them go 6-10 a year ago.
The players didn't look like they cared, the national media wondered aloud what was going on, and the fans were so upset that Tom Jurich actually had to release a statement declaring "Rick Pitino is my coach."
What the hell happened?
Did I really hibernate until football season like I sarcastically wished to after the Notre Dame game on Jan. 3?
This is the number two team in the Big East ladies and gentlemen. This is a 22-8 team heading to New York not looking to play themselves onto the bubble, but rather looking to improve upon their already solidified NCAA Tournament status.
So I'll ask again: What the hell happened?
You're not going to find anything definitive here because I think what we've seen this year defies absolute rational explanation, but just because we all love lists here are my top 11 reasons (I laugh at people with ten) for Louisville's resurgence.
11. The Ability to Generate Inside-Out Offense
We learned in '04-'05 that it's cool to jack up threes in transition when you have three or four guys on the floor who can shoot them, and we learned in '06-'07 that it isn't if you don't.
Taking open threes generated by a set offense is ok for an average to below average outside shooting team, but taking low percentage shots from the outside in transition is a recipe for disaster because it allows little chance for an offensive rebound, and often leads to a break out for the other team.
When the Cards began looking to get the ball into the middle of the zone, or down low to Padgett and, later in the season, Caracter, good things began to happen. T-Will and Padgett are two of our best passers so when T-Will gets the ball in the middle and the zone collapses, or when David gets the ball on the block and gets doubled, there's a good chance that they're going to find an open man, and I think we've seen that a lot in the last seven weeks.
The best example of this came in the crucial home win over Syracuse when late in the game Pitino moved T-Will to the point because both Sosa and McGee were having trouble seeing over the tall front of the Orange's zone. Williams was able to effectively get the ball to Juan Palacios in the middle of the zone and the result was that JDP scored nine points down the stretch, and T-Will himself was able to find an open spot on the wing to bury consecutive treys as the Cards erased a 14-point deficit and won 76-71.
10. My Newfound Laissez Faire Approach to Gameday Attire
After the Notre Dame game I completely gave up...not wathcing or rooting for the team, but trying to find the shirt or combination of shirts that would guide this team to a miraculous turnaround.
I started just grabbing the first red or white shirt or sweatshirt I saw in my closet and threw it on before the game.
We started winning.
The mindset has stayed, I don't think about what I'm going to wear beforehand, I simply go to the dresser/closet and grab something. In one particular case, the second South Florida game, I actually watched the game sans any Cardwear.
Now you might say: "But doesn't making a conscious effort not to think about your wardrobe still actually involve thinking about it?"
To this I would quickly reply: "Blow me, I've single-handedly saved the season of your favorite college basketball team."
9. Jerry Smith's Buzzer-Beater at Marquette
You can throw out all the statistics and in-depth psychological reasons you want, but the fact remains that if this one shot doesn't go in Louisville is without it's second biggest win of the season.
With that said, here's another excuse to watch it again:
8. The Return of Derrick Caracter
Ellis Myles is one of the greatest success stories to ever come out of the University of Louisville, and while Derrick is still very far from achieving what Ellis did both as a player and an individual, what we've seen from him in the last month under the tutelage of Myles himself has been nothing short of remarkable.
I can't name one person I talked to in mid-January who thought Derrick Caracter would play another game in a Louisville uniform. He had been suspended, sent home, forced to sign a contract, suspended again, suspended again, even mailed a Dunkin' Donuts application by his mother. Nothing was getting through to him.
Myles joined the basketball staff on Jan. 30 under the title of assistant strength coach, a thinly veiled epithet for Derrick Caracter's last chance.
Whatever was done (I have it on high authority that the F word was used at least once) has helped reenergize both Caracter's basketball career, and Louisville's postseason outlook.
DC has been a beast (is there really another word to describe him?) in the paint since his return, hitting double figures in five of his last six games despite playing limited minutes. His presence has made spurts with David Padgett on the bench watchable for the first time all season.
He also seems to be genuinely enjoying himself.
"It's a lot of fun," Caracter said last week. "I'm in the best shape of my life. The chemistry is there. This is the best time of my life."
Without him we probably still beat Pitt, but we definitely don't beat Marquette, but most importantly without him I don't think we're not a real threat to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
7. A More Manageable Big East Schedule
There's no way of knowing for sure how well this year's Louisville team would have fared in last year's Big East, but I'm not quite naive enough to predict a 12-4 record against a schedule consisting of four games against number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament, and six more against other teams in the field of 65.
This year's Louisville team is better than last year's on many levels, but it would be foolish to deny that they haven't benefitted at least a little bit from a conference that's down some from a year ago, and a schedule where their three home-and-home opponents went just a combined 19-29 in the league.
The league last year was ridiculous and our schedule (home-and-homes with Uconn, Villanova and Cincinnati) was simply unfair. Pitino said as much and I think the league responded appropriately by assigning us the threesome of Marquette, South Florida and a Uconn team that no one thought was going to be as down as they are.
I'm not saying the schedule and strength of the league means that U of L is a paper tiger, just that it's played a role in the extremely good position the Cards currently find themselves.
6. The Leadership of David Padgett
You can be as vocal as you want on the bench and in practice, but a leader has to prove himself on the floor.
With that in consideration, I think that being forced to sit out the 2004-2005 season as a transfer, and missing a solid chunk of last season with a knee injury is part of the reason we didn't see DP emerge as the true leader of this team until the middle of the season. Once David proved himself on the floor week after week, there was no longer any doubt as to who the leader of this team was.
A unit with this many young players has to have a guy with experience on the floor scolding them when they screw up, and praising them when they do well.
DP is the first guy to calm everyone down when they're getting overly and prematurely excited, he's the first guy to organize a team huddle, and the first guy to acknowledge someone when they do something right or wrong.
Every successful team has an effective leader on the court, and Louisville has a great one.
5. Tremendous Team Camaraderie
In the past two weeks Rick Pitino, Terrence Williams, Perrin Johnson, Chris Current and Derrick Caracter have all spoken publicly about the chemistry of this team.
These guys like each other, they want the team to do well, and they want their friends to do well.
When you see things like Brandon Jenkins hanging on T-Will's back as the team watches a Senior Day video, or everybody with their arms around each other as they wait for the final word as to whether or not Jerry Smith's buzzer-beater did in fact beat the buzzer, you realize that something special has happened or is happening.
"It was little cliques," said T-Will. "Now it's 16 guys that do everything together. Everybody does everything."
Any organized unit, be it an office, a classroom or an athletic team, won't function properly if the individuals aren't getting along. I'm not sure how it came about, but this team has gelled and is functioning about as well as possible.
4. Freshman Maturation
I suppose that number eight could have been lumped in here, but I think we can all agree that the Caracter issue was something completely separate from what's gone on with the rest of the freshmen.
A lot of people said before the season that this team would live and die with its young players. They were right, it was a month into the season and Louisville was dead.
Or so we thought.
Somewhere along the line the freshman class, in particular Edgar Sosa and Earl Clark, turned a corner.
Sosa played the first-half of the season selfishly and was called out by his head coach for it on multiple occasions. He shot when he could have passed, and when he did pass he often missed his target, turning the ball over five times in two of his first four games.
Clark, the only McDonald's All-American of the bunch, had a hard time finding the court early on, and then when he did he looked more lost than Kate Austen and Dr. Jack Shephard. He panicked when he got the ball, either trying to do much or trying desperately to get it out of his hands. The talented freshman logged less than 12 minutes in nine of Louisville's first ten games.
Pitino referred to Sosa as immature and said that Clark needed to better understand the game.
In the following weeks, coincidently, Sosa started to mature and Clark started to understand the game.
During the Cards' current six-game winning streak Sosa has dished out 23 assists to just eight turnovers, this while playing more than 25 minutes in every game besides the Connecticut game where he got into foul trouble and only played 23.
It's still a process with Sosa, he still takes bad shots and gets too flashy on occasion, but anyone who hasn't seen a stark change in his game hasn't been watching. He's Louisville's best ball-handler, it's most naturally gifted passer, and it's best penetrator. He hasn't come full-circle quite yet, but he's come far enough to make the Cardinals a contender.
Clark has become a huge contributor, logging more than 15 minutes in all but one of U of L's last eight games. He tossed in 14 points in consecutive games a month ago, and has cushioned the blow of losing Juan Palacios to injury by being an extremely able replacement at the 4.
All four of the freshmen are a work in progress, but they're far enough along that we've all been able to see that we have something special.
3. A Commitment to Sharing the Ball
In Louisville's 22 wins it is averaging 16.2 assists per game, in the Cardinals' eight losses they're averaging 11.2. In back-to-back December losses to UMass and Kentucky the Cards dished out just eight assists.
What have we learned?
"It's working," Terrence Williams said. "I tried it one game. It worked. We won. I tried it another game. It worked. We won. I learned there is something to this."
Louisville's current six-game win streak has seen the Cards compile 18, 17, 19, 15, 16 and 20 assists.
"Everybody finally figured out it's not about any individual, it's about team," senior Perrin Johnson said. "Nobody wanted to be sitting home watching the NCAA Tournament on television. We did that last year. It's not fun. I don't want to do it again. Nobody did."
When a coach talks about passing to a college basketball team, it's kind of like when that weird guy with the puppets came to class in second grade to stress the importance of reading. They both are good for you, but they're not as much fun as the alternative so you really don't want to hear about it.
Thankfully this team got to experience the reality of not sharing the ball and chose to make things right, and I got to experience the reality of not knowing how to read and realized how awesome it is.
Considering how much we've heard Coach Pitino talk about defense since he's been here, it's amazing to me that we haven't heard more about this team's ability to defend at any point during the season.
During the preseason he sort of talked about the need for this young team to learn how to defend in the generic way that coaches tend to do, but it was nothing compared to the constant lectures we'd heard with teams in the past. Maybe he just knew that these guys had it down.
It certainly didn't seem that way early on.
Louisville played no defense in a 94-92 exhibition win over Georgetown College, and played even less in a 100-87 win over Sacramento State to start the season. All of the arm flailing and uncontested three-pointers made Freedom Hall look like the McDonald's All-American game had arrived seven months early.
Since then the Cardinals have improved their man and adopted a stifling zone after made shots where the guards and wings fly to the ball and the big men effectively jostle for position down low. It's safe to say that if you don't shoot well from the outside, you're not going to beat Louisville anymore.
Eleven times this year the Cards have held their opponents under 60 points, and almost all of those times they've had to because of their own ineptitude on the offensive end.
The streaky shooting when it comes is nice, and the points down low from Padgett and Caracter have certainly helped, but this team put itself in the position to be where they are now by committing themselves to improving on the defensive end.
1. Rick Pitino