Rick Pitino's Louisville team is on pace to set a school record for fewest turnovers per game.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This won't stick as a nickname for Rick Pitino's University of Louisville basketball team, but it still needs to be said: These are the Good Hands Cardinals.
They protect the basketball as if it's Pitino's beard-trimming tool. They act like a coach is going to write their names on a wall of shame if they make a silly pass or dribble the ball away.
Which is sort of what Pitino has been doing.
In October, before the Cardinals played their first game, the coach was concerned that this team would be careless with the basketball. Peyton Siva was gone. Chris Jones and Terry Rozier were being eased into the backcourt rotation with Russ Smith, whose long-standing nickname (Russdiculous) indicated being wise with the basketball was not the calling card of his game.
So Pitino created a practice gimmick: Every time a player turned the ball over his name was taped on the wall at the practice facility. That was a minus-performance. Positive efforts for steals, offensive rebounds and other things were also recognized.
"If you come in our gym, you'll see everybody's name on the wall," Pitino said.
If you look at the Cardinals' full-season statistics, you'll also see this: Louisville is tracking for a school record for fewest turnovers per game.
Through 27 games, the Cards are averaging only 10.2 turnovers. The 2013 NCAA champs set the record with an average of 12.4
Louisville's 58-57 win at Cincinnati Saturday was the sixth consecutive single-digit turnover game for Pitino's team. The 2013 team never had more than three straight single-digit turnover games.
Kentucky is turning it over 12.2 times per game. For Indiana, the number is 15.2. The only ranked teams doing a better job with the basketball than Louisville are Wisconsin (first), Syracuse (fourth), Duke (seventh), Michigan (eighth) and Creighton (11th).
But when you combine the way that Louisville is wise with the ball with the way the Cardinals' defense forces the opposing team to do funky things, this is what you get:
A team that ranks second in the nation in turnover margin – turnovers created minus turnovers committed. At plus-6.8, the Cards are only percentage points behind Eastern Kentucky, the national leader.
"We put heavy emphasis on the things we thought were a problem," Pitino said. "I think our guys really bought into take care of the basketball at all times.
"Any time you're a pressing, running team it becomes a possession game. So, steals, forced turnovers, offensive rebounds are such a big deal. That's why we're number one in scoring in the conference because we take care of the basketball."
I would argue that the most remarkable individual statistic delivered by any Louisville player this season is Rozier's assist-to-turnover ratio. Please remember that former North Carolina coach Dean Smith argued long ago that a 2-to-1 ratio was solid work by his point guard.
Rozier, a freshman, is averaging 3.4 assists for every turnover – and he's now averaging nearly 20 minutes per game. Rozier has only mishandled the ball 15 times in 536 minutes.
Jones, the junior-college transfer, has also been solid. Check his assist-turnover ratio. It's almost 3-to-1.
Then there is Smith. Two seasons ago, Smith had more turnovers (90) than assists (76). He tilted his performance in the direction Pitino wanted last season, but not by much – 116 assists and 108 turnovers.
This season Smith has figured it out. His ratio – 1.61-1 – would not satisfy Dean Smith, but he is absolutely more careful with the basketball.
Everybody on Pitino's team is.
"The good thing about this team," Pitino said, "is we can play slow and win and we can play fast and win. And that's a nice thing."