College basketball prognosticators thought for sure they had Louisville well read.
The savants of the game turned back to the Cardinals of last season, identified a team coming together strong in March and recognized the upside that exists for a tournament-seasoned squad returning the core of its roster. Their crystal balls revealed the king of the Big East jungle evolving in Rick Pitino’s backyard.
A paper tiger was more like it.
Through the glorious preseason buildup of Louisville as the prohibitive Big East favorite and a trendy pick to cut down the nets in April—some of the hype reasonable, but most of it far-fetched—the pundits overlooked or simply ignored elements of last year’s Cardinals that foreshadowed a less-than-advertised heir apparent.
Hints of diminished play relative to expectations were traceable as far back as last winter. Everyone remembers Louisville’s four-game magic carpet ride at Madison Square Garden that segued into another four-game run to the Final Four. But how many recall the pitfalls and snags that tripped up the team during the regular season? Those humdrum, nine-loss Cardinals dropped eight games in conference play and stumbled into the league tourney as a 7-seed.
Images of Louisville’s pressure defense are nice for postcards, but perimeter shooting woes defined last season’s team as much as any full-court trap or steal. Louisville was the third-worst 3-point shooting unit in the Big East in 2012, and since then has lost its two best perimeter weapons: Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric. Even with George Mason transfer Luke Hancock rediscovering his stroke and Peyton Siva upping his long-range averages, the Cardinals again find themselves near the cellar of the conference in terms of outside shooting.
While most of the college basketball world is scrambling for answers, wondering what happened to the mighty Cards—which have dropped three straight after a short stay as the nation’s top-ranked team—others, like those of us who never bought the hype in the first place, are continuing to discover new question marks contributing to the mess.
Russ Smith takes too many shots—a shade under 15 per game and 25-percent of the team’s total—while his backcourt mate, Peyton Siva, recently hasn’t been taking enough. Siva has demonstrated a propensity to disappear in big game of late, managing only three points on 1-of-9 shooting in a loss to Syracuse before getting blanked by Georgetown while attempting just two field goals.
Like last year, Louisville’s scoring mechanism is overly reliant upon takeaways and easy baskets created or facilitated by the guards. Wayne Blackshear has been hit-or-miss, Chane Behanan has cooled off against the beefier frontcourts in the Big East and Gorgui Dieng remains a raw offensive prospect who only gets his points off of second-chance opportunities at the rim. Hancock’s efficiency has improved since his lackluster start in the non-conference, but the slow-footed junior has resigned himself to a supporting role in the background of the offense.
Louisville’s three-game skid, suggestive of second-tier status, is no surprise. The Cardinals are exactly who we thought they were…or at least should have.