One would think that a team with a 15 – 3 record and a number ten national ranking would be sitting pretty. If you take the pulse of the fan base for Louisville right now you would get a mixed bag. Some think the wheels are falling off after U of L’s third loss of the season, 63 – 52 to fourth ranked Duke. Others see the Cardinals in the NCAA tournament, but void of making a long run due to their offensive woes. Some even think that head coach Rick Pitino is not doing a great job of coaching this season. A simple message to Louisville fans: It’s not time to panic.
Louisville’s three losses have come at home against top ranked Kentucky (58 – 50), at No. 18 North Carolina (72 – 71, and at home against No. 4 Duke (63 – 52).
The common theme in all three losses was the Cardinals’ inability to hit shots. They shot less than 30 percent against both Kentucky and Duke. Louisville shot the ball well against North Carolina (47.5 percent), but made only one of their last seven field goal attempts after leading 69 – 64 with 4:05 left in the game.
Three-point shooting has been horrendous for the Cardinals (29.4 percent) as they rank 320 out of 351 teams. They are on pace to be the worst three-point shooting teams in Louisville history.
Shooting woes have not been the only cause for concern. The inability to get much production from the center position has been a nightmare. Mangok Mathiang, Chinanu Onuaku, and Anas Mahmoud have all started for the Cardinals, but Pitino still does not have a go-to-guy due to their limitations.
In his second season with U of L, Mathiang was thought to have been the one to take over the center spot, but has failed to do so on a regular basis. He gets pushed around down low and has failed to improve his offensive game. On the positive side he does provide energy and is one of the harder working players on the team.
Onuaku started at center early in the season and had some bright spots, but his energy and his youth have plagued him. Pitino often mentions the “process” in getting Onuaku to play at higher level, but does see the upside and the talent he brings the game.
Mahmoud has been perhaps the most surprising of the three. He has also had some bright spots, but is just too physically weak for top-level competition.
The bench has not produced for the Cardinals, leading to the starters playing increased minutes. Louisville will need a couple of players to step up and give them some solid minutes off of the bench.
Local talk shows are loaded this past week with callers questioning what is happening with the team. Fans always seem to have an answer as to what is going on and how to fix it. I will leave that up to Louisville’s Hall of Fame coach to figure it out.
In many ways fans can be pleased to see so much scrutiny played out. After all, the Cardinals have been to two Final Fours, a Sweet 16, and have won a National Championship in the last three seasons. They are the winningest program in the country over that same time span.
The 2012 and 2013 seasons both came with certain points that left fans shaking their heads and wondering if they were potential championship teams. The 2012 team made it to the Final Four before losing to the number one overall seed Kentucky 69 – 61. They had two horrible stretches in that season. The first was losing five out of seven games including a 90 – 59 blowout at the hands of unranked Providence. Then came the end of the regular season where they lost four of six games including a loss that had most people believing this team would never make a championship run. A 58 – 51 loss to unranked South Florida was one of the lowest points during Pitino’s tenure at Louisville.
The tables would turn as the Cardinals ran through the Big East Tournament and beat Cincinnati in the championship game to head into the NCAA tournament on a high note. They would receive a four seed and advance to the program’s ninth Final Four.
The 2012 team was similar to the current team in that it had trouble putting the ball in the basket. They finished the season shooting only 42.2 percent from the field and 31.8 percent from three point range.
Then came the magical 2013 Championship season led by Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, Gorgui Dieng, and Luuuuuuke Hancock. For some reason I feel the need to do that to Luke’s name every time it is mentioned. That team had incredible leadership, but also had moments that left you wondering if this was the team that could win Louisville’s third championship.
Louisville was rolling along to a 16 – 1 record with the only loss coming to Duke, a game in which Dieng did not play due to an injury. They would achieve the program’s first number one ranking when Syracuse came in to the KFC Yum Center. Syracuse would pull out a 70 – 68 win and knock the Cardinals out of the top spot. Louisville would then lose on the road to both Villanova and Georgetown to fall all the way down to number 12 in the rankings. How could a potential championship team lose three in row during the season?
Then came the infamous five overtime loss at the hands of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in which they were given every chance to win, but just couldn’t do it. Lesser teams would have folded their season, but this one was different. Pitino challenged his team to win the final 16 games of the season culminating in a National Championship. They did as Pitino said and cut only one net down along the way, the Championship net in Atlanta.
There are many questions the current team has just like the past teams, but there is tremendous potential as well. They have talented players in Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier. They have veterans in Wayne Blackshear and Chris Jones. Most importantly, they have a Hall of Fame coach in Rick Pitino leading them.
Maybe this current Louisville basketball team will succeed as the past three teams have and maybe they won’t. One thing I am sure of is that it is not time to panic. It is too early in the season. Just sit back and enjoy the ride and just maybe we can see a run like we have seen the past three seasons.