Night Line: Louisville Starting to Find Their Form in Big East PlayPosted by EJacoby on February 7th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular 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.
Monday night saw Louisville completely dominate Connecticut in the second half during an 80-59 victory, and while the major focus was on the Huskies’ sorry effort, the Cardinals deserve credit for another impressive win after a horrible start to conference play. Monday’s victory was the team’s fifth straight, all of which have come by nine or more points. Louisville was clearly overrated when they were ranked in the top 10 during an undefeated start in December, but Rick Pitino’s team is starting to come around and establish themselves as one of the more talented teams in this year’s muddled Big East. Plenty of difficult matchups remain on the schedule, but the talks of the ‘Ville being on the NCAA Tournament bubble are long gone, and this team is looking to peak at the most important time of the season.
Back on December 23, Louisville had finished its non-conference schedule without a loss and was then ranked #4 in the AP Poll, but quickly crashed down to Earth once the competition ramped up. The team lost five of its next seven games, including home defeats to Notre Dame and Georgetown, and it was unclear if the Cardinals were even a top 10 team in their conference, much less the entire country. But collective intensity and defensive effort was never an issue during that midseason slump, and the Cards are now gaining confidence offensively that could make them a sneaky dangerous team down the stretch.
Louisville’s season-long defensive field goal percentage of 36.9% is ranked third in the country and has hovered around that elite number all year. Coach Pitino continues to get a strong defensive effort from his players, starting with Peyton Siva (1.9 SPG), Russ Smith (2.3 SPG) and company’s strong perimeter pursuit and ending with Gorgui Dieng’s dominant interior presence (3.4 blocks per game). When they play loose on the offensive end and move the ball to create good shots, Louisville starts to look like a much more complete team. We looked at the team’s offensive struggles back in early conference play, but several players have since improved their shooting percentages in the past month. Most notably, freshman Chane Behanan has improved from 44% to 48% in just over 10 games. The forward converted 11-12 shots in a win over Rutgers on Saturday and is a combined 28-43 (65%) during the five-game winning streak.
Monday night’s win showed what the Cardinals can look like when they are clicking on both ends of the floor. Louisville shot 11-25 from three while holding their opponent to 3-14, and Siva had two more assists than the entire Connecticut team (seven). Of course, a completely lifeless effort from UConn certainly contributed to the lopsided result, as the Huskies were as ESPN analyst Jay Bilas put it during the telecast, “literally sleepwalking” during the second half of the game. The Cards had 22 assists and “just had more fun than they did,” said Russ Smith afterward. A deep team that shares the ball offensively, plays great collective defense, and enjoys playing with one another is a formula that all coaches would take. Pitino just happens to be one of the best in the business and will continue to look for ways to improve the team’s offensive output.
The Cardinals (19-5, 7-4 Big East) cracked the AP Poll this week but remain unranked in the RTC Top 25, showing that our analysts are not completely buying back in. Their current five-game win streak has not included a single victory over a team in the top half of the conference standings, and perhaps their surge says just as much about the softness of the belly of the Big East as it does about the Cardinals’ improvements. The team still has to play two games against Syracuse as well as road games at West Virginia and Cincinnati. However, the fact that Louisville has at least taken care of business and gained confidence during a winning streak should give them a better chance to win during their tough upcoming matchups. After all, it is difficult to win five straight games in the Big East at any time, and they’ve won most of them in convincing fashion. The true test for the Cardinals starts this weekend in Morgantown, and we’ll see if they’ll come out sharing the ball with the same kind of success on the road against a tough defensive opponent.