Rick Pitino is only 62 years young. And though he called it the “end of an era” in a wide-ranging interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal last March, there is no indication of his Louisville-based basketball factory slowing down.
I’m not sure what he meant by that statement, but I do know that losing his primary backcourt of Russ Smith and Luke Hancock to exhausted eligibility has been a challenge this year. That era is over. The Cardinals also lost Chane Behanan to repeated violations of team rules, though his season ended before New Year’s Day last year.
This year the team has started strong, and has put their stamp on games with physical, ball-hawking defense, relentless rebounding, and by unleashing Trez on teams. If you don’t know him by Trez, you may have seen his name in print as Montrezl Harrell. He is a 6’8, 240″ collection of fast-twitch muscle who can guard the rim, and defend the 3 (oh and he likes to dunk). The defense revolves around funneling guys into him and his block-party co-host Chinanu Onuaku. Both are also offensive rebounding menaces, each averaging over three offensive rebounds per game and keeping possessions alive.
Trez, who had previously committed to Virginia Tech under the Seth Greenberg regime, has grown his game considerably over the first two years, improving from a mere dunking man-child reserve on their title team, into a player that could one day become a Ben Wallace clone (albeit with more offensive skill). He has stated that 100 dunks this season is not out of the question, and his dunk reel from last year alone is a laughable 14 minutes long.
The backcourt is a work in progress. While excellent on-ball defenders, Terry Rozier and Chris Jones are not good distributors or three-point shooters at this point. The Louisville backcourt is easily the weakest link on a team that is fighting for an ACC crown with two teams in UVA and Duke that rarely exhibit traits that could be defined as weak links, only lapses. Overcoming the turnover in personnel will be paramount on Pitino’s to-do list as he prepares his team for March. He doesn’t have a floor general like Peyton Siva anymore (NBA), and that was undoubtedly a problem in the Sweet 16 last year as Louisville managed just 11 assists (5 from the backcourt, against 42 points) in their bitter loss to eventual national runner-up Kentucky. Let’s examine the first quarter of the season.
Note: First quarter only deals with the regular season schedule. We’ll call the postseason overtime when we arrive there this Spring.
Why An A?
Because they’ve dispatched everyone easily to this point, what else is there? They have quality wins over Ohio State (RPI 16) along with Minnesota (RPI 66, and coached by his son Richard). They have been dominant defensively, ranking #3 overall, allowing just 49.3 ppg. Their scoring margin is an indicative of dominance as well ranking only behind Duke and Kentucky, which is good company. There has been no drama so far, and I would’ve scored them an A+ if I didn’t have sneaking concerns about their backcourt, although they do seem to have the alley-oop passes in transition down.
How Can They Improve Their RPI Before Conference Play?
Presently at #17, Louisville has games coming up against Indiana and Kentucky (at home in the YUM). Certainly a win vs Kentucky who will be a top 5 RPI team if not top-ranked will give the Cardinals the rare boost a #17 can experience. Unfortunately, Indiana and their 161 RPI isn’t going to move the dial tremendously. That’s usually a bankable game. Perhaps by the end of the year, they’ll be RPI top 50, and it will help U of L.
What Does Louisville Do Well?
- They close out on threes better than anyone in the country. The Cardinals and their wingspan are devastating. They allow just 22.8% from three, good for 4th in the country. Wayne Blackshear is a very good defender at the wing, he also has enough bulk to work with some of the smaller power forwards in the league.
- They steal the ball and get transition baskets. They rank 5th in the country in steals per game at 11.4. Harrell is guilty of a lot of cherry picking. The Louisville guards will create havoc in the passing lanes, and when Trez sees this he just hangs back and gets easy dunks. He can hustle to catch up to the play if need be. But this hedging leads to a basket or two a game.
- 17th in the nation in Turnover Margin. Best in the ACC.
- Relentless on the glass. Ranking 4th in offensive rebounding rate and 11th on D.
- 17th in blocked shots with Onuaku leading at 2.7 per game.
- 15th in rebound margin.
- Superstar quality: Trez at 16.1 ppg and 9.4 rpg sets the tone for the rest of the guys, and the other top two teams don’t have as distinctive a face to headline their programs. There may not be any other player in the ACC who will make the singular impact Harrell does outside of perhaps Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant.
Where Can the Cardinals Improve?
- Sharing the ball. They rank right in the middle of the NCAAs at 171st. The starting backcourt averages just 6.2 assists per game.
- Discipline. The team fouls at a really high rate with 19.7 fouls committed per game, that’s 218th nationally. Tons of room for improvement there.
- As good as the Cards are at preventing the three point shot, they are fairly apoplectic shooting them in their own right, ranking 272nd in 3 pt shooting. Of their regulars, 32.1% from distance is the best. Matters aren’t helped by Harrell trying to stretch the floor with his new-found toy. He has already shot 13 of them, after having attempted 0 his freshman year, and 3 last year. This is a helpful skill to add to the set, but it still needs far more work before it’s a regular weapon. Right now it’s not helping.
This team is a beast. But they could be susceptible to a team with a patient back court and some size of their own. We should all look eagerly toward their home game vs Kentucky as a litmus test for all the above concerns. If they manage that game well, then the sky is the limit. Sure they could make adjustments, but it is unlikely that this team has it within themselves to change their DNA within the season this year. As always, Pitino teams hope to challenge for the title, and this year is no different. Certainly their ambitions are still very much alive at the quarter turn. Ask A(n) Ohio State University about their chances.
The Week Ahead
Games on Tuesday and Saturday vs Indiana (161) and UNC-Wilmington (94). The Indiana game is a neutral-site game in the Jimmy V Classic, which will be held at MSG. Louisville is staying busy, unlike UVA who only plays three times between now and January 3rd. It’ll be interesting to see which team enters ACC play at the top of their game. The longest U of L break is six days. Couple of quick notes on this week’s opponents:
- Indiana beat Pitt at home in the ACC/B1G challenge for their best win. A win over SMU and Larry Brown also qualifies as a money win. Indiana’s RPI will improve after games against Butler and Georgetown.
- UNC-W lost their opener to ODU (RPI 5) and lost at Davidson (RPI 25). They will not have played since 11/29 when they head to Louisville. They will have only played four games at that point. Right now, GAMER projection service has this one as a Louisville victory by 40+. Trez is salivating. YUM.
Please stay tuned as I run down each of the ACC teams first quarter marks as we rev up our coverage on Inside The ACC. Please air any grievances below in the comments! You might be just in time for feats of strength!
Have a great week all, and check back in as I am going to be posting these until I am exhausted (at least a few a day until complete). Follow me on Twitter (@insidetheacc)