CINCINNATI – It’s an easy jump to make – after Louisville’s thrilling 58-57 road win over No. 7 Cincinnati on Saturday was punctuated by Russ Smith’s game-winning shot with 2.2 seconds left – concluding this Rick Pitino team is blazing the same trail as last season’s national-title-winning team.
The Cardinals are on a six-game winning streak – their last loss was Jan. 30 – and the momentum feels a lot like the mojo surrounding last season’s 16-game winning streak, which started Valentine’s Day and went all the way through the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
Like last season, Louisville and its pressing, trapping, drive-you-nuts-ing defense rank second in the nation in turnover percentage. This is a team that’s as good at turning opponents over as it is at taking care of the ball on its own end, with a plus-6.9 turnover margin that also ranks second in the country. You could take Louisville’s midseason struggles last season, with its three-game January swoon, and extrapolate them to this season, as the Cardinals had been winless against ranked teams until Saturday’s victory.
It’s a tempting comparison.
And its implication is clear: This year’s Cardinals could be another team of destiny like last year’s net-cutting squad.
But I’m here to tell you why this team is completely, totally different – and, perhaps, not nearly as primed for a national title run as a year ago.
I’ll start at the obvious and then black-and-white, then move to the more complex and subtle. First it’s the personnel. Only two starters remain from last year’s title team: Smith and swingman Wayne Blackshear. Floor leader Peyton Siva and shot blocker Gorgui Dieng headed to the NBA, and power forward Chane Behanan was dismissed from the team midseason. Also gone is the injured Kevin Ware, who averaged a crucial 17 minutes on last season’s team before his horrific injury in the tournament. Without a master facilitator like Siva, this year’s team is dominated by a deep rotation of guards who think score first, pass second. Pitino’s guys still buy into the pressing system, and they still turn their opponents over at a high rate, but they aren’t nearly as intimidating in the paint, and that press doesn’t seem to inspire the same amount of fear in opponents.
Then there’s the numbers. Last season’s Louisville team was right at the top of the country in advanced metrics for offense and defense; KenPom.com rated it fourth in the nation in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency, a remarkable balance. This year is just as balanced but far less dominant, ranking 14th and seventh respectively.
The biggest number of all? Strength of schedule. In last year’s Big East, Louisville played a beast of a schedule, the sixth-toughest in the country, and the Cardinals won the toughest games, with four wins against top-25 RPI teams.
This year? Louisville ranks 119th in strength of schedule. This is what happens when you move from the old Big East Conference to the new American Athletic Conference. The toughest games the Cardinals have played have been losses; until Saturday, Louisville was 0-4 against teams ranked in the top 25 in RPI. The truth is we can’t get an accurate comparison between last year’s team and this year’s because the schedules are so different.
And then there’s the eye test. When you saw Louisville streaking in late February a year ago, it was a team that looked unstoppable. There was a reason so many college hoops writers, myself included, correctly picked Louisville to win it all. Their defense was a well-oiled machine, the most shining example of the Pitino Way in his 28 years as a head coach. I’ve never seen a team play with all five players seeming to know exactly what their teammates were thinking on the court, but that one did. Pitino was the master puppeteer, and Louisville had the closest group of players I’ve seen.
That is not nearly the case this year. It’s not that this pressing defense isn’t still very good, still one of the best in college basketball. It’s that things don’t seem to run as tightly as a year ago. A great example came late in the game Saturday. With 2:40 left, and with Cincinnati having surged from down 10 to down only one, Chris Jones, a new addition to this year’s team, had the ball at the top of the key. To his left, Smith was maneuvering to get open. Jones passed him the ball – just as Smith pivoted in a different direction. The ball flew out of bounds, and the possession went back to Cincinnati.
The play itself wasn’t what jumped out to me. Instead, it was what happened immediately after the turnover, when Jones started pouting and gesturing at Smith. He put the blame on his teammate – his older, more experienced teammate, the one who already has a ring – and not on himself. The brazen display of what a bad teammate looks like went on for several seconds, until Pitino put a stop to it by benching Jones.
That was something that never would have happened on last season’s team, and it’s one of the things that’s giving me pause about whether this Louisville team has a repeat in it.
I asked a few Louisville players after the nail-biter win to compare last season’s team to this season’s. Their answers were illuminating. They agreed that this year’s team is vastly different, and that the comparisons being made in the media between last year’s epic winning streak and this year’s streak are premature. But they still spoke about this team with a large amount of confidence.
“Not yet,” Smith told me when I asked whether this team has the same feeling around it as last year’s. “I’ll know when we get there. … It’s still going to take some defensive efforts that we didn’t do in the second half. Once we handle that, we’ll be OK. We’ll feel it. And you guys will know. Once we start getting stops, getting the offensive rebounds we weren’t getting, we’ll know.”
Luke Hancock, who won the Most Outstanding Player award in last season’s NCAA tournament, told me about the difficulties in proceeding without an experienced senior floor leader like Siva. This team has better shooters, he said, and is deeper, especially in the backcourt. But to compare the streaking of last February to the streaking of this February?
“A lot of people are going to make comments like that: ‘When is our turning point?’ " Hancock said. “And it could be this game. That was an amazing game. Hopefully we ride this momentum and keep winning games, keep growing beards.”
Oh yes – the beards. Another different thing about this year’s team. A year ago Pitino’s players were talking about the tattoo Pitino promised in February that he’d get if they won a title in April. (He got the tattoo in the offseason.) This February, Pitino has hit upon getting everyone associated with the team – from Pitino himself to players to trainers to affable sports information director Kenny Klein to the local media who cover the team – to grow beards together. It’s one more example of Pitino as a masterful locker-room chemist.
“(We) are playing really well defensively,” the coach said after Saturday’s game. “The thing that bugs me is if they miss a shot they let it bother them. I tell them that I will never take them out because of missed shots. Defense makes the difference. Play defense. Play your butts off on defense, and they did today.”
They did, which helped them overcome another of the country’s finest defensive teams in a tough Cincinnati road environment.
I don’t think we’re looking at anywhere near the same level of greatness as last year’s team. But if Louisville is somehow able to pull off the repeat, which hasn’t happened since Florida in 2007, it’ll be because this team – a team that’s so different from a year ago – has done two things: focus all its energies on defense, like last year’s Cardinals, and keep growing those beards together. Because it’s that sort of team-building chemistry that elevates a Pitino team to that you-know-it’s-gonna-happen type of dominance that Louisville had last year – and has lacked so far this year.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.