What’s in the Cards? Looking at Louisville’s Tough Road Ahead

Posted by Shane McNichol on January 28th, 2016

Rick Pitino doesn’t do much under the radar.

After losing four big name players after last season, Montrezl Harrell, Chris Jones, Wayne Blackshear, and Terry Rozier, Louisville was expected to take a step back. Those four players were the Cardinals’ four leader scorers, accounting for more than 77% of the team’s points. Then, when news of a prostitution scandal involving former players and staffers broke, on-court success became an afterthought.

And yet, Pitino’s team has succeeded thus far. The Cardinals find themselves ranked 3rd in KenPom and 2nd in Jeff Sagarin’s rankings. The human voters have not been as kind, with Louisville yet to crack the top 15 of the AP Poll. Most bracket projections have Louisville projected as low as a 4 seed.

Can Pitino Work His Magic Again This Season?

The discrepancy is clear. The Cardinals have lost only three games to date, all on the road and at the hands of top 60 competition.  They now boast six wins over the KenPom top 100 teams. Louisville leads the nation in scoring margin, outscoring opponents by 21.6 points per game. That feat has not come against a collection of cupcakes, as Louisville has played a middle of the pack, 170th ranked schedule so far.

Then why the discrepancy? In this year of upsets and parity, Louisville awaits their moment in the sun. Back in November, Pitino theorized that his team had been disrespected by the polls because of the recent scandal. He felt voters ignored his controversial Cardinals. That may have been the case in the preseason, but at this point voters and the court of public opinion await a good reason to acknowledge Louisville. Their schedule has yet to feature a signature win. Their best two victories have come over Pittsburgh and Florida State, both of which came at home. The Cards lost to the two best teams they have played–close games on the road at Michigan State and rival Kentucky.

The conference schedule that lies ahead of Louisville is daunting.

UL sched

Every opponent on the Cardinals schedule the rest of the way, except for Boston College, is currently in the KenPom top 60. Those opponents feature an average ranking of 45.2 in KenPom, but that number drops to 24.6 if Boston College is excluded. Five of the games occur on the road, in some of the nation’s most brutal environments.

If Louisville responds to this schedule and is able to do more than survive the stretch run, they can enter the NCAA Tournament with as good a shot at advancing to Houston as anyone. Clearly this is not Pitino’s first rodeo and he has a roster that can win games in March. This season, the Cards national defensive ranks are jaw-dropping: 3rd in defensive efficiency, 2nd in effective FG% allowed, 27th in turnover rate, 24th in 3-point % allowed, 2nd in 2-point % allowed, 15th in block rate, and 22nd in steal rate.  All of those numbers reflect the type of basketball Pitino preaches, though the issue entering the season for Louisville was scoring. Losing the four cornerstones of last year’s team would open a lot of shots for less experienced players, until Pitino skirted around that problem. Louisville’s two leading scorers have been Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, experienced transfers. Lee finished 5th in the nation in points per game last season at Drexel and Lewis scored nearly 16 per night for Cleveland State. They have continued to score in their time with the Cards, combining for almost 30 points per game.

Classic Louisville defense injected with two shots of instant offense makes for a potent combination. Sitting here over seven weeks away from Selection Sunday, Louisville’s potential is as theoretical as any team in America.  In a year of mysteries and surprises, they are a relative blank slate. How they fare over the next seven weeks will have a massive effect on their seeding and expectations. This season in particular, every outcome, from the Cards catching fire to a total collapse, is on the table.

Shane McNichol (30 Posts)

Shane McNichol is a national columnist for Rush The Court. He is also the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com and has contributed to SALTMoney.org and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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