The Louisville Cardinals were the No. 1 team in many preseason polls, but lost an early five-point decision to Duke in the Bahamas without star center Gorgui Dieng. Now, after the Blue Devils and Michigan were dealt their first losses over the weekend, Rick Pitino’s Cards set atop the AP poll for only the second time in history. The later part of the notation seems ironic with the pride and history of the Louisville program. The only other No. 1 regular season appearance was in 2008-09 when the Cardinals finished atop the poll at season’s end before losing to Michigan State in the Elite Eight.
The Cardinals have won 10 in a row and played a tough schedule that includes wins over Missouri, Northern Iowa, Memphis, and Kentucky as well as a 4-0 start in the Big East. In addition, the have had to tread water with injuries which has allowed them to show the epitome of what is one of the deepest teams in the nation. The 15-1 start is the best since Louisville started 16-1 in 2003-04.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino is seeing his defense suffocate opponents as league play has began in the Big East. Courtesy Louisville Athletics
On Saturday, Louisville held South Florida to 38 points and only 26.7% from the floor as they built a 17-3 lead and never looked back as the Cardinals were as stingy on the defensive end as they have been all season.
“It is a type of defense that we wanted played,” Pitino said of the team’s stellar effort in the 64-38 destruction, ” They came out the entire evening and played unbelievable defense, the type of defense we have been waiting for and wanted to see. We are proud of our guys and they did a tremendous job tonight.”
The Cardinals’ have been getting up in people’s grills and guarding tougher of late. The are second in turnovers forced at+7.8 and amazingly have scored 33% of their point on the season off opponents’ turnovers.
Last night in their 73-58 win over UConn, Louisville erased a 41-39 Huskies lead by holding UConn scoreless from the field for a 9:02 span in the second half. The 2-point deficit flipped to a 60-44 lead thanks primarily to the 2-3 half court zone and the usual full court press which started to wither the Huskies ball handlers and force turnovers.
“I have been trying to explain to them that defense wins you ball games regardless of what happens on offense,” said Pitino, “We had a real nice meeting at halftime during the Seton Hall game, and I think they understood it.”
Pitino was alluding to an 8-of-28 performance by the Pirates in the second half of the previous game where Louisville was challenged in the first half, but took control out of halftime after Pitino’s “real nice meeting.” True, the Cardinals have held eight of 16 opponents below 35%, but Pitino was looking for his team to step it up against a quality opponent or a Big East foe.
The No. 1 rating of course is a bull’s eye and the Cardinals were tested last night in a short turn around trip to UConn and then a visit from No. 5 Syracuse on Saturday. Pitino would like to see his defense continue to tighten and play aggressive as the enormity of the week beckons.
“The way we handle it, in the Big East, is you just play one game at a time,” he commented, “This is like the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big Ten. I saw Indiana almost lose to Iowa. They could’ve very easily lost to Iowa. And today they had a big lead against Minnesota. So the Big Ten, the ACC, the Big East, just every single game is a war.
Louisville’s best total defensive effort of the season didn’t surprise South Florida coach Stan Heath who alluded to the Cardinals being of national championship quality with their defending as well as attention to board play and transition layups.
It’s just the improvement in the players and I think the depth they have to keep bringing guys in and bringing guys in and bringing guys in,” commented Heath, “I think they’re just really comfortable in their schemes in offense and defense – changing their defense from man to zone and zone to man.”
Pitino noted the concerted effort by the Cardinals on the defensive end has pretty much been a string of the last 60 minutes and will need to be a norm this week or the Cards could easily be the next No. 1 to fall.
“From the Seton Hall halftime to now, I can’t be any more pleased,” summarized Pitino, “We were focused on the defensive end, from a scouting standpoint, from a rebounding standpoint, from a ball containment standpoint, things that we didn’t see before that.”
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