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A Look At Louisville Basketball's Rocky Relationship With The Month Of January

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Much has been made in recent days -- and in recent years, I suppose -- of Louisville's struggles in the month of January, a recurring trend that frustrates but somehow also shocks the Cardinal fan base seemingly every winter.

The common thought is that Rick Pitino breaks his team down a little bit during the first month of conference play. He likes to test things out, become 100 percent certain of his team's and his individual players' strengths and weaknesses, and then he lets the squad fire in February. The hope then is that the group is as confident, battle-tested and near its ceiling as possible once March arrives.

But how accurate is all this? Have Pitino's teams really been that much worse in January and that much better in February? Or is this all some convenient narrative that we convinced ourselves of at some point in the last couple of years?

To figure that out, we must dive into the January/February phenomenon by looking back at its presence over the past decade of Pitino ball in Louisville...


January record: 5-2

vs. No. 24 Memphis (73-67); vs. No. 13 Cincinnati (69-66)

February record: 7-0


January record: 5-3

vs. No. 6 Syracuse (70-68); at Villanova (73-64); at Georgetown (53-51)

February record: 6-1


January losses: 5-3

vs. Notre Dame (67-63, 2OT); at Providence (90-59); at No. 21 Marquette (74-63)

February record: 5-2


January losses: 6-3

at No. 7 Villanova (88-74); at Providence (72-67); at No. 15 Georgetown (62-59)

February record: 5-2


January losses: 3-5

at No. 3 Kentucky (72-63); vs. No. 4 Villanova (92-84); at No. 16 Pittsburgh (82-77, OT); at Seton Hall (80-77); at No. 9 West Virginia (77-74)

February record: 6-2


January losses: 9-0

February record: 5-2


January losses: 6-3

vs. Cincinnati (58-57); at Seton Hall (92-82); at Connecticut (69-67)

February record: 8-0


January losses: 6-2

at No. 17 Notre Dame (78-62); vs. No. 24 Marquette (74-65)

February record: 5-2


January losses: 3-6

vs. No. 3 Villanova (76-67); vs. No. 12 Pittsburgh (61-57); at St. John's (68-56); vs. No. 3 Connecticut (71-58); at Rutgers (65-56); at No. 6 Villanova (79-73)

February record: 3-3


January losses: 8-1

at Houston (70-67)

February record: 6-1

So the only team over the past decade to lose fewer games in January than February was the 2008-09 squad, which went on that ridiculous run after New Year's to begin the march to an outright Big East championship. That team is also the only one which made it through January unblemished.

All told, Louisville has lost 28 games in the month of January (not counting this season, of course) over the past decade, 13 more than the number of games it's dropped in the succeeding month. Of those 28 losses, 18 have come on the road and 16 have come against ranked opponents. Seven of the losses have come by 10 points or more.

Now, let's take things a step further and bring the other three months of the season into the equation (sorry, April).

Total Number Of Louisville Losses Per Month Over The Last 10 Years

November: 7

December: 16

January: 28

February: 15

March: 20

November can obviously be dismissed here since the season starts halfway into it. That December number is low, but part of that is because it's typically the overall weakest month on U of L's schedule. Some people might be surprised that Louisville is averaging two March losses per season, but that's an awfully low number when you take into account that the only way to avoid having two guaranteed losses in that month every season is by winning your conference tournament or/and the NCAA Tournament.

As I'm sure a few of you have already noted, Louisville typically plays less games in February than it does in January simply because it's a shorter month. You are correct (congratulations), the Cards have played 12 more games in January than they have in February since 2004-05 (this season they play eight in both months).

Based on U of L's winning percentage over the past decade, those 12 extra games equal out to somewhere between two and three more losses. If you take those losses and add them to February's total, the discrepancy is still remarkably high between Louisville's success in that month and its success in January.

So, yeah, the "Louisville always takes lumps in January and then is better in February" phenomenon is pretty real. But here's the other thing: it's a phenomenon that has been almost typical amongst great teams over the years.

Here's something I wrote for the mothership back at the beginning of the month when people were freaking out about Kentucky almost losing to Ole Miss:

Crazy things tend to happen during the opening few weeks of conference play in college basketball. For the country's top teams, the days of overwhelming low majors and only having to really "get up" for a handful of quality opponents are over. Suddenly, these teams are being hunted, and the opponents doing the hunting are familiar with their style, their players and their venues. The results, often, are surprising ... although maybe they shouldn't be.

In the opening week of 2015, we have already seen three teams -- including then-No. 6 Villanova -- taste defeat for the first time. We've also seen a top-ranked Kentucky team that was supposed to role through the SEC be pushed to the brink at home by Ole Miss.

So should fans of these elite teams experiencing this New Year phenomenon be worried? Let's look at the past 15 teams to cut down the nets and the setbacks they experienced (if any) in the month of January.

Connecticut (2014) - At SMU (74-65); vs. No. 18 Louisville (76-64)

Louisville (2013) - vs. No. 6 Syracuse (70-68); at Villanova (73-64); at Georgetown (53-51)

Kentucky (2012) - Did not lose

Connecticut (2011) - At No. 14 Notre Dame (73-70); vs. No. 23 Louisville (79-78)

Duke (2010) - At No. 20 Georgia Tech (71-67); At NC State (88-74); At No. 7 Georgetown (89-77)

North Carolina (2009) - vs. Boston College (85-78); At No. 4 Wake Forest (92-89)

Kansas (2008) - At No. 24 Kansas State (84-75)

Florida (2007) - Did not lose

Florida (2006) - At Tennessee (80-76); At South Carolina (68-62)

North Carolina (2005) - At No. 4 Wake Forest (95-82)

Connecticut (2004) - At No. 11 North Carolina (86-83); vs. Providence (66-56)

Syracuse (2003) - At No. 3 Pittsburgh (73-60); At Rutgers (68-65)

Maryland (2002) - At No. 1 Duke (99-78)

Duke (2001) - Did not lose

In summary, six of the past 15 national champions lost twice in the month of January, three of those teams did not lose at all, three more lost only once, and a pair were beaten three times.

Of the 21 total losses suffered by these champions, 12 came against ranked opponents. Although nine unranked teams were involved in these upsets, only four of those teams ultimately failed to make the NCAA Tournament -- Rutgers in '03, South Carolina in '06, NC State in '10 and SMU last season. Only two of these national champions -- Florida in 2006 and Louisville in 2013 -- lost consecutive games, and those two teams are also the only eventual champs to lose more than once to an unranked squad.

Most of the best college basketball teams in recent memory have experienced a few bumps in the road during the first month of conference play. It's part of the process, and more than likely not cause for panic.

The abysmal shooting is concerning, as is Montrezl Harrell's mid-junior year slump and his apparent frustration, but this all still feels like part of the process. The question then, is just how formidable the process can make this particular group once it's completed and go-time has arrived. My guess is we'll have a better sense of that after the next few weeks.