Night Line: Louisville Finally Gets Exposed, Takes First Loss to GeorgetownPosted by EJacoby on December 29th, 2011
Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist and contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
On Wednesday night, a couple of previously undefeated teams took their first losses of the season as conference play began. For Indiana, it was a reminder of how tough conference play is on the road, and a loss was expected by the Hoosiers as an underdog at Michigan State. But for Louisville, at home in the KFC Yum! Center, its loss was a confirmation of this team’s weaknesses that may prevent the Cardinals from becoming an elite team this season. Rick Pitino’s squad ran into their first disciplined opponent that held strong for 40 minutes, and it resulted in a solid Georgetown win. Louisville, who had escaped from several near-losses earlier in the season, was finally exposed on the offensive end by a team that could take advantage of its weaknesses there. The Cards shot just 42% for the game and must improve their shooting if they want to seriously challenge for a Big East title.
Louisville walked away unscathed in its non-conference games, but a closer look at the team’s play through 12 games led many analysts to consider them overrated. Though 12-0 on the season heading into this week and ranked #4 in the AP poll, our RTC voters were not buying into the Cardinals as a true top-5 team, ranking them 10th in the latest RTC Top 25. Wednesday’s home loss confirmed our pollsters’ beliefs, and the Cardinals are next headed to Rupp Arena on Saturday for a meeting with No. 3 Kentucky. By the time next week’s AP poll comes out, Rick Pitino’s team might be lucky to stay in the top 10.
While Louisville is deep with numerous talented contributors, their lack of offensive consistency may have this team searching for answers. The Cardinals have six players that average at least nine points per game, but they have not been very effective on a per possession basis on the offensive end. The only area that Louisville excels in offensively is rebounding, where they pull down 14.5 offensive boards per game (24th in the country). But many of their boards come because of their 43.9% overall shooting percentage, which ranks as the third-worst in the 16-team Big East conference. Additionally, Louisville scores only 1.07 points per possession, barely cracking the top 100 in the country, and their 112th ranked free throw rate shows that they don’t get to the line with regularity either. For a team that forces so many turnovers (17.4 per game), the Cardinals should be able to find easier offense on their own end.
Shot selection and distribution can cause issues for a team with a 10-man rotation like Louisville. Sophomore Russ Smith is a player known for his instant offense and game-changing ability off the bench, but perhaps he’s trying to do too much. Smith averages just 20 minutes per game, sixth on the team, but he has taken the second most shots on the roster, converting them at just 37% from the field. Kyle Kuric excels as an outside shooter but he is being called upon as the team’s go-to scorer and is now averaging over 5.5 three-point attempts per game. As a result, he’s knocking down just 35% of his long-range shots, which is far too poor for such a good shooter. In addition, team leader and point guard Peyton Siva has been in a shooting funk all season, shooting just 36% from the field and 21% from three. Down low, freshman stud Chane Behanan is converting shots at a 44% rate; again, far too low for a talented athlete that does his best work in the low post. Louisville’s top offensive threats simply aren’t producing to their greatest potential.
Looking at the big picture, it’s important not to write off this team as a contender even if they do in fact lose at Kentucky on Saturday. Being a deep, defensive-minded team is a huge asset that very few teams across the country possess, and Rick Pitino does a tremendous job getting the most out of all of his players. Defensively, the Cardinals rank in the top 10 nationally in efficiency, field goal percentage, points per possession, and steals, but they haven’t yet converted enough quick offense from their impressive efforts on the other end. In order to take that next step as an elite team, Louisville needs a more effective offensive game plan. Whether it’s through shot selection, in transition, or elsewhere (Wayne Blackshear?), improvements are necessary if the Cardinals plan to keep up with their adept conference foes.