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Slow starts are killing Louisville basketball

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Cardinals’ Achilles heel continues to hold team back

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Louisville Louisville Courier-Journal-USA TODAY Sports

Finding motivation this year has been harder on coaches and players than ever before. We’ve seen home court advantages disappear as cavernous arenas across the country sit empty. We’ve seen home teams blow comfortable leads because they don’t have the crowd behind them to keep pushing them, while also seeing away teams come storming back without any crowd noise to phase them or shake them up. And we’ve also seen good teams come out unenergetic and flat. It’s been bizarre to watch, but the nice thing is that the virtually every team in the country is on the same level playing field since everyone’s going through the same challenges.

Which is exactly why Louisville’s slow starts have been inexcusable.

Sure, any reasonable fan expects to see their favorite team come out flat every now and then, but when it gets so bad that you’re dubbed the “Louisville Slow Startinals,” then it’s probably a trend.

And after crunching some numbers, guess what? It’s definitely a trend.

Since no one can agree on what a “segment” is in college basketball, let alone whether men’s college basketball should play quarters or halves, I decided to break down this exercise in both ten-minute segments and four-minute* segments so that everyone can get along.

*Some folks like to break segments down by each stretch between TV timeouts, but because some TV timeouts are called later than others, and to keep the integrity of the data, I just put things into four-minute intervals. Bite me.

Let’s start with how Louisville has done in each ten-minute interval across the season:

Oh weird. The opening ten-minute segment is the only one that has a negative scoring margin. I really don’t see how any of this data surprises anyone. The slow starts are obviously there and are obviously a trend. And one of the nicest surprises of the season thus far has been the team’s strong performances coming out of the half, which is reflected by their excellent +3.42 scoring margin average in the first ten minutes of second halves. But for Louisville to be 5-7 in opening ten-minute segments against the schedule they’ve faced thus far is beyond unideal.

But let’s take it a step further by breaking each game down into four-minute segments:

Yay it’s even worse. Louisville averaging a staggering -2 average scoring margin in the first four minutes of each game is mindboggling. Even if you take out the disastrous Wisconsin game, the average is still an abysmal -1.45 margin. And based on the second and third four-minute segments, you can see the team is trying their damnedest to dig themselves out of early holes time after time after time. And it’s not even like the average is getting dragged down by good teams punching us in the mouth early. No, we’re talking about teams like Evansville, Prairie View A&M, and Boston College all getting a jump on Louisville early.

Thankfully Louisville was able to claw back and put away those kinds of teams, but against teams like Wisconsin and Florida State, allowing them to jump out to eight and seven-point leads, respectively, makes an already tough task even harder. And in those games the games were basically over before you could say, “well that’s another bad start.”

Alright, I know we all want to throw out the Wisconsin game, but sometimes you have to be impressed with how thoroughly you got your own ass kicked. I mean just look at those numbers. The game never got better! Louisville lost EVERY. SINGLE. SEGMENT, with the exception of the hilarious and heroic two-point victory in the final four-minute segment. The team just took blow after blow, and the deficit only got worse. A lot of times when you’re getting your ass kicked you make a little run like Louisville did in the second half against FSU and eat into their lead a little bit. But not this time. Nope. We just took an impressive Georgia Tech-BVG-level ass kicking.

But I digress.

The weirdest thing about these slow starts is that this is a good Louisville team who still has a legitimate shot at winning the ACC if they can pull themselves back together. It’s not like they’re a 4-9 team flailing around aimlessly with no hope of making the tournament while their fan base and coach with a lifetime contract turn against each other (*wink*), which is why I don’t understand how this team rarely comes out with their heads on fire and ready to play.

In their biggest games of the season thus far: Kentucky, Virginia Tech, and Florida State (I left Wisconsin out on purpose this time, you’re welcome), the team hasn’t had the energy out of the gate you’d expect for these types of games where Chris Mack shouldn’t even have to explain why they should be excited to play.

It’s so perplexing that even Coach Mack can’t wrap his head around it.

After the loss to FSU on Monday Mack told the press, “It doesn’t take any talent to spring your ass back and find your man. I don’t know if it’s being young, scared or intimidated, but shit needs to get corrected.”

The silver lining from all of this is that it seems more than apparent that fans and Mack are seeing the same intensity and focus issues at times during games, and that he is working to fix it.

Whatever it takes to light a fire under this team’s collective ass and get things going, it needs to happen. The schedule is only going to get harder as the team begins the back half of their conference schedule, and trying to climb out of 11-0 holes every night is not going help this team win the league title or earn a double-bye in the ACC Tournament.

I believe this team has the players to make a deep run in March, and have shown on multiple instances just how good they can be, it’s just a matter of keeping them motivated as this bizarre covid season drags on and fixing the little things so that the team can finally put it all together for 40 minutes.