The 2015 basketball season didn't begin ideally for the Louisville Cardinals. Without ever stepping foot on Denny Crum Court, the school, program, and head coach were deluged with scandal and uncertainty. All has been quiet on the scandal front and these Louisville Cardinals have quickly turned everyone's attention to positivity and promise. The unknown greatly surpasses anything concrete about the 2015/16 Cardinals and for the first time ever, I cannot wait for January.
1. What do we know?
Louisville is good offensively and can actually score the basketball. It is a pleasant surprise and very refreshing to actually have confidence the ball will go in when these kids shoot. The last two years, last year especially, were tough to swallow because the Yum! Center rims took more of a beating than any opponent. The 2015/16 Cardinals are 8-1 and have made 50% or more of their field goal attempts in all eight wins. Also of note is the way this team shares the ball and passes. The Cardinals are averaging 15 assists per game and is a major factor why the shooting percentages have been stellar.
Louisville's improved offensive play is encouraging, but another known is greatly attributable to the scoring improvements. The non-conference schedule is, for lack of a better word, offensive. Louisville Basketball has never played this many opponents that would have a hard time beating Bellarmine, Trinity, or Ballard. A few patsies are always expected and a must, but Coach Pitino and Mr. Jurich overdid it on the amount of cupcakes rolling into the KFC Yum! Center for a paycheck. Fortunately for everyone, Louisville's conference schedule will save us all from these "tests".
Another known thus far, Pitino's bunch has a lot of learning to do outside of the classroom on the defensive end of the floor. The matchup zone might as well be a foreign language to the newcomers, and all the contributors are still attempting to learn their roles in Coach Pitino's various full court presses. If these Cardinals are to be a title contender they must dedicate themselves to playing Pitino defense. Memory usually serves me correctly, and my memory says HOF Rick emphasizes defense above all else. If the Cardinals can improve in typical fashion of a Pitino coached team, I fully believe this will be the second best team he has had at Louisville.
Lastly, the newest version of Louisville Basketball is likeable and the individuals set great examples for young athletes and fans. They respect each other, their coaches, and the fans, and they believe in Coach Pitino above all else. This type of leadership was all but absent a season ago, and it is clear the freshman, sophomores, juniors, seniors, and grad transfers are all on the same page and have one goal. Not only is this Coach Pitino's best recruiting class in terms of skill, these young men are the perfect bunch to help us all put a rocky past in the rearview mirror.
2. What don't we know?
The obvious unknown revolves around just how good is Louisville right now. Michigan State is the number one ranked team and the optimist inside of me says Louisville was the better team in East Lansing. Optimism is welcomed, but the Cardinals still lost and haven't been tested since. A lot of mediocre teams can rise to the occasion one night, see March Madness for examples, but the test of a truly elite team is can they consistently handle and defeat top competition.
Michigan State won that game due to experience. Their key players had been in that moment countless times and they responded likewise. My fear for Louisville is that they weren't able to build off that game. Instead of facing a few more legitimate NCAA Tournament teams, the Cardinals returned to their nest and have barely broken a sweat through the month of December. Kentucky aside, Louisville will not be tested until January.
The Cardinals have a world of potential, especially if their defense catches up to their scoring ability, but another unknown is how this team will respond to adversity. The ACC is the best basketball conference and the odds are in favor of Louisville dropping a few conference games. How will the Cardinals respond when they get punched in the mouth by an equal? What happens when they lose a brutally close road game on a Wednesday and have to turn around on Saturday to play a top 10 team? Thankfully this group respects and listens to their coaches, but adversity can be a powerful adversary.
In my "professional opinion" these Cardinals will remain an unknown until January 30th. In the span of eight days Louisville will face Virginia, North Carolina, and Duke, with Boston College sandwiched in between. If the fans and pundits want answers about Pitino's bunch, they'll have all the evidence they need by February 9th.
The last unknown is certainly the threat of NCAA violations and punishments. Everything has been quiet, a little too quiet, and I know I am not the only Cardinal supporter who has nightmares of our punishment being announced on Selection Sunday. I don't know what the NCAA is waiting for, let's hear it already.
The scandal has certainly left an ugly stain on a season that ought to be cherished. Louisville Basketball has its second most talented roster in 20 years, and Coach Pitino deserves a lot of credit for bringing these pieces together. The Cardinals are good, they're going to get better, and they are finally running out of exhibition games. There is a lot more unknown than known with this team, but a few things are certain. This is a group of young men to be proud of, their skills are only surpassed by their character and Houston is less than four months away. Enjoy the journey because the 2015/16 Cardinals are a perfect reminder of why we love Louisville Basketball.
All Hail UofL !!