CRAWFORD | Five thoughts on the 5-0 Louisville basketball team
At 5-0 and heading into their biggest test do date at Michigan State on Wednesday, Eric Crawford takes a look at the University of Louisville basketball team so far.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The University of Louisville won its fifth game Saturday, and it was the Cardinals’ best win to date, a 77-57 win over Saint Louis in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
It doesn’t take Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistics to tell you that part of the reason the Cardinals have looked so impressive so far is competition. The first three games they played were against teams that didn’t have much chance. Their average margin of victory sits at 33.6 points per game. The Saint Louis win wasn't as pretty as the others, but it was more impressive, because a lot of things didn't go right for the Cardinals in that game, and they still found a way to win comfortably.
North Florida and Saint Louis were a bit of a step up. On Wednesday, the Cardinals will face a long climb up when they visit an unbeaten Michigan State team that already owns wins over Kansas and Providence.
Still, even against lesser competition, there are teams that are ranked higher who haven’t performed as well as the Cardinals. Rick Pitino talked about that with reporters after the Saint Louis game, and broached the allegations brought against his program by Katina Powell in her book, “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen,” for the first time in weeks.
Here are my thoughts on where the Cardinals are right now, where the investigation into the program is, and what’s ahead.
1. SHOULD THIS TEAM BE RANKED? I think so. The Cardinals haven’t played the kind of schedule that has earned an early-season ranking, but as Pitino pointed out in his postgame comments Saturday, Louisville is a program that traditionally would be ranked on reputation alone at this point, and the only reason he offered for why they aren’t is the scandal facing the program.
He might be right. But the schedule U of L has played has as much to do with it. If the Cardinals are competitive at Michigan State, I expect they’ll enter the rankings soon. The voter who represents this state in the AP balloting, Rick Bozich, has ranked the Cards in his past two polls, and has them at No. 20 on his ballot this year.
One interesting note — the stat-based rankings (which mean far less in the early season, until a larger sample against better competition can be used) have been very kind to the Cards.
Jeff Sagarin’s ratings have the Cardinals No. 3 in the nation. Ken Pomeroy has Louisville up to No. 11. The gap between those and the human polls is huge. Schedule does play a part in that, but Pitino might have a point in his assessment, too.
2. THE MATCH-UP ZONE RETURNS. For the first time this season (at least for any significant stretch) the Cardinals broke out their match-up zone against Saint Louis.
Pitino moved Mangok Mathiang into the starting lineup (because of his familiarity with the zone), showing some of the versatility his roster gives him. The zone took a while to get cranked up. There were some slow rotations at first, and Saint Louis got off to a hot start from three-point range and trailed by only two at the half.
The Billikens shot 52 percent in the second half and 48.8 percent for the game. But Pitino got some work in with the zone, and will be able to make improvements over the course of December. He told Bob Valvano on his postgame radio program he doesn’t expect to use it as much against Michigan State. Freshman Ray Spalding and sophomore Anas Mahmoud aren’t as comfortable in the zone, he said.
3. THE OFFENSE CARRIED THE DAY. With Valvano, Pitino said, “We won this with offense.” The numbers bear that out. The Cardinals shot nearly 70 percent in the second half (16-23) and went 20-for-25 from the free-throw line. They shot 65.6 percent (21 of 32) from two-point range in the game, and 12-for-16 in the second half.
Damion Lee took a while to get going, but once he started driving into the paint for shots, he got on track. He finished with 10 points, while Trey Lewis finished with 22 points and seven assists. Lewis continues to improve his rebounding from the guard spot. Mathiang had 17 points and 13 rebounds, and while Pitino doesn’t expect that every night, he does think someone from the four spot can put up good numbers on most nights.
4. SO WHAT DO WE MAKE OF THESE GUYS? The team has a chance to be better than anyone expected — mainly because no one knew what this team had. But Michigan State will be an interesting yardstick.
The Cardinals have outrebounded their first five opponents by an average of 21.4 per game. That’s not going to happen against Michigan State. Their shooting has been improved — 52.3 percent from the field through five games — because they’ve been able to work the ball into the post more often for higher percentage shots. If they can do that against Michigan State, it’ll be a good sign.
The perimeter shooting could be better, but we haven’t really seen that yet. The Cards are 36.4 percent from beyond the arc, but the best indicator for the offense is that they really haven’t had to rely on the three-point shot yet.
Chinanu Onuaku is the most improved player on the team, averaging nearly 10 points and 7.4 rebounds a game, and leads the team with seven steals. The Saint Louis game was the first time all season he struggled with foul difficulty. Michigan State will be a major test for him.
Quentin Snider, though he was outstanding in leading the Cards after Chris Jones’ dismissal last season, also has made huge strides. He leads the team in minutes played (along with Lewis), and in assists, while averaging 10 points per game.
Saint Louis coach Jim Crews commented on it, and it is noticeable — this Louisville team has far better size and length than most of his past Louisville teams. The ability to play Mahmoud or Spalding at the four spot really lengthens the team out, and they get comfortable with the zone, it will be even tougher to deal with. Donovan Mitchell is making positive contributions. Deng Adel’s healthy return will be important, and Pitino said Saturday that he wouldn’t rush it. Adel is likely to sit another two weeks.
5. ON THE SCANDAL ALLEGATIONS. There hasn’t been much to update since Katina Powell sat down with the NCAA nearly two weeks ago, and there was little update from that, because nobody knows what she said, except that it wasn’t expected to vary from the account in her book.
But Pitino, being in New York, faced some inevitable questions on the situation. From Greer’s transcript, an excerpt:
“The thing I'm disappointed in – because I like a lot of people in the media (and) I'm someone who's been media friendly for a long, long time – is that you bought into it," Pitino said. “You believe it. That's the startling thing. Now we've got 11 women coming forward and saying that didn't happen, signing affidavits. Everybody just bought it. I wouldn't buy it for a second. Now, is there some truth in the allegations? I'm sure there are. But nobody called them to task. I don't know. I'm a doubting Thomas.”
Again, we’re faced with the contradiction we’ve had in this from the beginning. For starters, I think a lot of the media seriousness with which these allegation were greeted took the cue from the seriousness Pitino and Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich gave them the first time they heard them. In this statement, in fact, in the same utterance, Pitino says: “I wouldn’t buy it for a second. Now, is there some truth in the allegations? I’m sure there are.”
He’s saying the allegations haven’t been scrutinized in much depth by the media, and in large part (and, respectfully, present company excluded) they haven’t. They’ve been pretty well taken on their face.
But this is the first time publicly I think anyone from U of L has acknowledged, “I’m sure” there is some truth in the allegations.
What I see at this point — and this is my opinion, because I don’t know what attorneys are doing and investigators finding — is that U of L is moving toward the position of acknowledging that there were parties in the dorm, in fact, it would be hard not to acknowledge that at this point. And in fact, there may be players who said they had sex at or in connection to those parties. But none of the women are acknowledging it, and certainly not acknowledging sex for money. One of Powell’s daughters, on television, acknowledged having sex with a player — but not for money.
The bottom line is that it’s still a sordid tale. There are still likely to be NCAA sanctions if investigators determine that Powell was paid for these parties. But how much, as has been reported here, is a matter of question. File this as my own speculation.
One the one side, fans who are holding out hope that these allegations are 100 percent fiction, I think, are likely to be disappointed. On the other, it’s hard to see how the NCAA goes about proving more serious allegations of widespread sex for money.
Were the allegations embellished? I don’t know, and I don’t even know if that’s the important question right now. The more important question is how much can actually be proven? I do think we’re still a couple of months away from any kind of official report on findings. Unless Powell’s appearance helped speed things up on the NCAA’s end.
As for the effect of all this on the team, Pitino says the players have used it to fuel them.
“I'm sure the Patriots were sick and tired of hearing about Deflategate, and they've done a pretty good job since then,” Pitino said. “How are they playing this year?”
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