The plummeting Louisville Cardinals, having lost four of their last five contests, make their first-ever visit to the Wachovia Center, to take on the # Wildcats on Monday night... Here's a preview...
The Viewpoint on the Louisville Cardinals
ESPN: Sean McDonough, Bill Raftery, and Jay Bilas
The two teams have not faced each other often, unsurprisingly, including a near 36-year gap between meetings from Dec. 1953 to Nov. 1989. This will be just the tenth meeting all-time, with Louisville holding a narrow 5-4 edge. The teams met regularly in the early 1950s (the first game was on January 8, 1950, with the host Wildcats falling 78-68), but then only played each other in holiday tournaments and the 1996 NCAA tournament, until this season.
On Thursday, January 5, Villanova became Louisville's first-ever official Big East opponent, visiting Freedom Hall as Louisville celebrates the venue's 50th anniversary of hosting Cardinals basketball. The Wildcats prevailed over then #-9 Louisville, 76-67.
It had been almost ten full years since the teams had last met, on March 17, 1996, in the second round of the NCAA tournament, at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. It's worth repeating, from my recap of the initial meeting this year:
The victory was at least a consolation for longtime Villanova faithful, who vividly remember the 1995-96's team being ousted by Louisville and DeJuan Wheat (19 points) in the second round of the NCAA tournament on St. Patrick's Day. It was the final game for Kerry Kittles, who completed his stellar career with only one NCAA tournament victory, despite two appearances as a #3 seed in a region. There was no luck for the 'Cats that day, as sharpshooter Eric Eberz had the worst game of his career, and it ultimately sunk the 'Cats' Sweet 16 hopes.
Coach and Context
Rick Pitino (5th season at Louisville, 20th overall)
Against Villanova, Pitino is 3-4 lifetime, including all coaching stops (five of them came when he was coaching Providence, of course, and he was 2-3). While at Louisville, he did get Jay Wright's Hofstra team in December 1997 at the Puerto Rico Shootout, defeating them in the first round.
Rick Pitino is a future Hall of Fame coach, as we all know. In two decades of college coaching, he is closing in rapidly on 500 victories (he currently has 463, one short of former Georgetown coach John Thompson on the all-time list), in four stops (Boston University, Providence, Kentucky, and his current station). He's been to four Final Fours (with three different schools), and captured the 1996 championship with Kentucky, probably the last truly great NCAA team, before the flood of players foregoing eligibility escalated.
He's also done something which very few coaches have done before him - coach both sides in an archrivalry, such as the one between UK and Louisville. He spent eight stellar years in Lexington, where his final six teams all made NCAA appearances, five made the Elite Eight, three made the Final Four and one won the whole thing.
After a respite in the NBA, Pitino announced that he'd return to the NCAA, but coaching Louisville, of all places, for the 2001-02 season. The UK fan base went ballistic - their sentiments perhaps best represented by the most memorable sign, the day Pitino went back to Lexington for the first time on the U of L sideline: "Rick - Only Santa Looks Good in Red."
Part of the Pitino act is the image (inter alia, the urbane sophistication, the ghostwritten books on leadership, the tailored, expensive suits). But he does have the goods to back it up, when one looks at his records at his various coaching stops. At Louisville, his first team (2002) only made it to the NIT. But in 2003 and 2004, the Cardinals returned to the NCAAs, and last season, went all the way to the Final Four, going 33-5. Overall, in his nearly five seasons at U of L, Pitino has compiled a very impressive record.
Louisville, of course, is a storied program. It has 32 NCAA appearances (tied with Indiana for fourth all-time) and eight Final Fours (also tied with IU, for seventh all-time). This year, it is observing three significant anniversaries:
two concurrent ones (the 50th year in residence at Freedom Hall and the NIT title the Cardinals won in that same year, 1955-56, when the NIT arguably was the de facto championship);
and the 20th anniversary of the 1986 national champions under Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum, featuring "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison and Milt Wagner (back in the news in recent years, as his son, DaJuan, was a highly touted recruit coming out of South Jersey, who ended up at Memphis).
How The Cardinals Have Done So Far
2-5 Big East, 14-6 overall, RPI rank #79 (through games of Mon Jan 23). They were ranked #24/#22 in the polls last week, but in the Monday, Jan. 30, polls, they have fallen out of the top 25 in both the AP and the ESPN/USAToday polls. (Last week, in AP, they were #22 but now received only nine votes; in ESPN/USA Today, they were #23 but received just six votes.)
The Cardinals are in serious danger of missing the NCAA tournament, despite the fact that the team had been in the Top 25 all season, prior to today's polls. Their extremely weak RPI rating (nowhere near what would be needed to qualify as an at-large bid) is chiefly attributable to Pitino's decision to schedule very weakly, in light of the team's entry into the rugged Big East. The same CollegeRPI.com report ranks Louisville's strength-of-schedule as #87. (In contrast, VU was 13-2 against a #13 SOS, as of last Tuesday, although the games against poorly ranked USF and ND will drag that number down a bit this week.)
It was reasonable for Pitino to figure he'd have enough problems with moving to the Big East, without a treacherous December slate as well. But there were only two major-conference opponents, scheduled for Louisville. One was @ #22 Kentucky (Louisville's archrival, as well as Pitino's former school, where he won a national title in 1996), where they lost by 12 on CBS. The other was @ Miami, now a sophomore member of the ACC, where the Cardinals won by 15. But that was it.
Louisville has cupcake wins over a series of dreadful teams (RPI ranks): Tennessee-Martin (#288), Prairie View (#334, one up from the bottom in fact, as there are only 335 Division I teams), Arkansas State (#206, but a 6-13 record already), Chicago State (#261), and Fairleigh Dickinson (#226), and UC-Davis (#274, and with a 4-13 record), all at home. They also have home wins over respectable Akron (#76), against whom they scored an incredible 111 points, as well as the middling Detroit (#187), College of Charleston (#220) and Middle Tennessee State (#113).
The bottom line is that Louisville needs to have a respectable Big East record, in order to get an at-large invitation, with that schedule. And currently, they don't have it, at 2-5 heading into tonight. In conference play, they have:
a loss to Villanova, a win @ Providence (one of Pitino's former realms, and whom he took to the Final Four back in 1987), a loss to Pitt, a loss @ St. John's, yet another home loss (their third home loss in BE play) to Connecticut, a win over Cincinnati, and most surprisingly, an upset at the RAC @ Rutgers on Saturday. In that most recent defeat, the game was deadlocked at 56 when RU scored the final nine points of the game to win 65-56. Thus, 2-5, with a very difficult game tonight against the Wildcats. In summary, Louisville started the year 11-1, and is now 14-6.
As a result, Louisville is going to face an uphill battle even to qualify for the Big East tournament. They already have five losses, and still have four nationally-ranked Big East opponents (VU, WVU, Syracuse, and Connecticut) - all of which are on the road, starting at the Wachovia Center, this evening.
G Taquan Dean (Sr, 6-3, 15 pts/game)
G Andre McGee (Fr, 5-11, 5 pts/game)
G Brandon Jenkins (Jr, 6-3, 12 pts/game)
F Juan Palacios (Soph, 6-8, 11 pts/6 rebs/game)
C David Padgett (Soph, 6-11, 12 pts/6 rebs/game)
Louisville is 8-0 when Dean (a preseason All-American and John R. Wooden Award candidate) scores 15 or more points, and 6-6 when he doesn't- so that fact concisely states the defensive priority for Villanova. Dean has been bothered by an ankle sprain, causing him to miss the games against UConn, St. John's, and UC-Davis, and he played only 12 minutes in the loss to Pitt. In the last two games, moreover, he still played only 27 minutes each, as it nagged him considerably against RU.
Padgett is having a great season, including a career-high 27 points in the loss to UConn. He's banged-up, too, having missed some practice this week with knee problems.
In general, the Cardinal attack has sputtered in recent games, screeching to a halt for minutes at a time. U of L shot just 34% against RU - their worst accuracy of the season, and they've been under 40% in each of their last five games. Predictably, they've lost four of those five.
I will provide a full recap after the game...
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