The overarching identity of Louisville basketball — well, 21st century Louisville basketball — is obvious enough.
It’s Rick Pitino, still prowling the sidelines into his mid-60s. (And did you know his 16 seasons at Louisville matches his combined total of years with Providence, the New York Knicks, Kentucky and the Boston Celtics?)
By extension, the Cardinals’ identity is ferocious defense. Annually, it winds up among the most miserly in the land. Usually, it features strength in numbers. Occasionally, there’s a charismatic offensive star who can turn a really good team into a true national title contender.
Louisville checks all of those boxes this season, yet the Cardinals aren’t quite as popular in the national title discussion as some other programs. Villanova won it last year. Kansas is loaded (again). Kentucky and Duke are both stocked with young talent and included in such conversations by reflex. Gonzaga is undefeated.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals are 21-5, lead the country in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com and own the country’s best three-point percentage defense. Their coach has six Sweet 16s, five Elite Eights, two Final Fours and a national title in his last eight trips to the tournament. Louisville understands the formula for postseason success, and this group is equipped to follow it.
This is not to say the Cardinals are completely overlooked. But there are some reasons this particular edition of Louisville hasn’t quite captured imaginations like in past years.
- Unheralded players. It was really easy to forget about Louisville last year once it self-imposed an NCAA tournament ban. But even if the school’s administration hadn’t sacrificed a postseason to Pitino’s quite public dismay, the Cardinals had the roster of a team in transition. Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, a pair of graduate transfers, were the upperclassman anchors. It was otherwise almost entirely a group of freshmen and sophomores who figured to bloom into the nucleus of Louisville’s next great run.
That’s come to pass, though only sophomore Donovan Mitchell (team-high 15.2 points per game) and perhaps junior Quentin Snider have become easily recognized names. Mitchell proved especially valuable as a fill-in point guard when Snider missed six games with hip injury in the middle of league play.
There’s no shortage of options to take a star turn, with Deng Adel and Jaylen Johnson among them. In Monday’s victory at Syracuse, it was freshman Ryan McMahon’s turn in overtime. With a 10- or an 11-man rotation, depending on who’s healthy, Louisville is among the deepest teams out there. Yet with contributions from so many guys, it’s harder for anyone besides Mitchell to fully stand out.
- The ACC shuffle. So Louisville is a contender, huh? So is North Carolina. And Florida State. And Duke. And Virginia. And don’t forget about Notre Dame, either.
There’s an element of the 2011 Big East at play in this year’s Atlantic Coast Conference. They aren’t doppelgängers, as some would want you to believe; the bottom five of the Big East that season provided virtually no resistance to the top 11, creating polarized conditions that helped maximize NCAA tournament participation.
But like that version of the Big East, a quality team in this year’s ACC is part of an avalanche. Some will simply draw more attention than others. It doesn’t help the Cardinals that they’re 1-4 against the top six in the conference (including a sweep at the hands of nemesis Virginia, which owns a 5-1 mark against Louisville since it joined the ACC).
- High-end road performance. If there is a portion of Louisville’s postseason resume to take issue with, it is how it has fared away from home against high-caliber opposition. The Cardinals have done much of their best work at home, knocking off Duke, Kentucky, Miami and Purdue. Virginia Tech could join that list Saturday.
Louisville owns a neutral-court defeat of Wichita State, and has knocked off Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Syracuse while rolling up a 5-3 record in true road games. Pitino’s bunch isn’t in danger for getting seriously dinged with seeding, and beating good teams on the road isn’t a breeze. But it does provide a note of caution.
- Is the offense good enough? Maybe. It’s better than it was the last two years, when the Cardinals were occasionally difficult to watch (granted, that often came against Virginia). Mitchell, who is constructing a season worthy of an all-conference nod, has played particularly well since Christmas. The return of Snider, who averages a turnover every 20.6 minutes, provides a needed source of stability.
The Cardinals are best described as an opportunistic offense. They’ve cracked 85 points on five occasions in league play, doing so against Pittsburgh (twice), Boston College, Clemson and N.C. State. Not coincidentally, those are the ACC’s four least efficient defenses in conference play.
Louisville’s good offense and elite defense will win it plenty more games between now and the end of the season. It’s a good combination, perhaps even enough to have a shot to snip the nets in the desert. It would also come as no surprise if another good offense-elite defense opponent (Baylor, Florida, Oregon, Virginia or Wisconsin, perhaps?) brought an end to their season late next month.