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Examining Louisville basketball's rough relationship with the month of January

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

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: 6-2

At No. 18 North Carolina (72-71); vs. No. 4 Duke (63-52)

February record: 5-3


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 record: 5-3

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

February record: 5-2


January record: 6-3

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

February record: 5-2


January record: 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 record: 9-0

February record: 5-2


January record: 6-3

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

February record: 8-0


January record: 6-2

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

February record: 5-2


January record: 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

So the only two teams over the past decade to lose fewer games in January than February were last year's team and 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 29 games in the month of January (not counting this season, of course) over the past decade, 12 more than the number of games it's dropped in the succeeding month. Of those 29 losses, 18 have come on the road and 18 have come against ranked opponents. Eight 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: 6

December: 16

January: 29

February: 17

March: 22

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 over 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 10 more games in January than they have in February since 2005-06 (this season they play eight in both months).

Based on U of L's winning percentage over the past decade, those 10 extra games equal out to somewhere just above two extra total 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.

The No. 1, No. 3, No. 8 and No. 17 teams in the country all lost last night, and that's not a rare occurrence for top 20 teams during the opening weeks of conference play. Six of the past 16 national champions lost twice in the month of January, three of those teams did not lose at all, three lost only once, and three more (including Louisville's title team and last year's Duke squad) were knocked off three times.

The major difference between this season and past seasons for Louisville is that its February slate is absolutely loaded. The Cards will play eight games between Feb. 1 and Feb. 27, and five of those games will be played against teams currently ranked in the nation's top 20. Even if the team makes a giant lead forward over the course of the next seven months, their record might not accurately reflect that thanks to the massive step up in competition.

It's also worth pointing out that although Louisville has still taken January losses in recent years, they've typically been January losses to really good teams. In fact, the last time the Cards lost to a postseason eligible team (in any month) that didn't go on to make the NCAA Tournament was exactly four years to the day before the Clemson game when they had that 31-point loss debacle at Providence in 2012. I'm not sure the Tigers have the ability to get hop and keep that streak alive, but we shall see.

The abysmal shooting that we saw against Clemson is concerning, as are the midseason struggles of both Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, 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 has completed and go-time has arrived. My guess is we'll have a better sense of that after the next few weeks.