Coach Pitino has developed a consistent Cardinal mold that the majority of his teams fit into year in and year out. HOF Rick builds them up, breaks them down, preaches defense first, relies on outside shooting plus daunting full court pressure, and often uses the media to motivate his roster. The 2014/2015 Cardinals are a black sheep in Coach Pitino's annual template, but this unconventional group has an opportunity to leave a recently conventional mark.
UofL clings to three irreplaceable stars in Rozier, Harrell, and Jones, and "core four" is an accurate term when including Wayne Blackshear's important, but less noticeable impact. This core accounts for 65% of minutes played, 81% of the team's scoring, 63% of the rebounds, 81% of steals, and 75% of team assists. The remaining seven contributors for the Cardinals play 80 minutes a game and tally a mere 14 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, less than two steals, and nearly five turnovers.
Alarming is an understatement for the statistics, and its unfathomable only four players have scored points in the last two games. When looking for a reason why Louisville cannot get over the hump against championship caliber teams, the seven outsiders will continue to be a popular target.
This is not an all-time great Louisville team due to the unusually severe talent drop-off. However, Harrell and Rozier are all-time great Cardinals, the team has remained in the top 10 all season, and UofL is in position to win the ACC. Louisville's first four are an elite group standing tall alongside a very even college basketball field. UofL has beaten everyone they were supposed to against the toughest schedule in years, lost one heart breaker thanks to a miracle, and dropped three games to prohibitive favorites to win the title...thing are going to be ok.
One attribute is hard to ignore in Louisville's losses, an attribute only possessed by two teams in basketball. Kentucky and Virginia are statistically, and to the eye, the best defensive teams in the country. Kentucky's stifling prowess is due more to their size, depth, and athleticism, but scoring inside of fifteen feet against the Wildcats is nearly impossible. Virginia on the other hand is one of the most disciplined and well coached teams I have seen in some time. UVA's defense breaks down less frequently than a Honda and their high basketball IQ turns any basketball fan green with envy.
Also, Kentucky, and more noticeably Virginia, played a style of basketball that limits Louisville strengths. Both teams employed methodical half-court offenses against Louisville, and Virginia was very impressive in only committing two turnovers for the entire 40 minutes.
Three of Louisville's losses have been frustratingly ugly, but I enjoy silver linings. Louisville played UK even December 27th and merely missed every shot that mattered down the stretch. Virginia was an oddity not seen in over 20 years. Louisville out-rebounded Virginia and shot a better percentage, nevertheless, the first half implosion was too great a hurdle to overcome. UofL cracked Virginia's code in the second half, but it was too little too late and key time management errors cost them down the stretch. The Duke game was just a clunker. Louisville found the shots they wanted against the Blue Devils; it was simply one of those nights.
A hopeless optimistic view moving forward is the possibility that one or more of Louisville's much maligned supporting cast may improve and actually contribute. A more realistic outlook acknowledges Louisville's top four players have proven they can carry this team and put UofL in position to win against any tournament level opponent.
The Cardinals have struggled mightily against top defensive teams, but UVA and UK are the best two defensive teams in basketball. Louisville only has to win four games to reach its 11th final four and the odds of facing a defense comparable to Virginia or Kentucky before the elite eight are slim to none. Also, excusing Duke or UK, Louisville would possess the best four players on the court in any March matchup. Confidence should be high considering the Cardinal's consistency in handling every team it's been favored against.
Can Louisville make another tourney run? Pray we avoid Virginia or Kentucky like the plague. These Cardinals are a different sort, a square peg in a round hole in terms of Pitino teams, but they've proven their worth and shown flashes of greatness. The Cardinals are in a conventional position and cannot lose focus against any remaining opponent, but like Connecticut a year ago, there will be over 60 teams with chances to handle our dirty work. The tournament is all about matchups. If Louisville gets lucky and navigates its ship clear of stifling defenses, banner number four is an attainable dream.
All Hail UofL !!