Louisville Set for Big Tourney Run
by Trevor Whenham - 03/06/2008
I'll say this right off the top - I'm going to fill in a lot of March Madness brackets this year as every year, and Louisville is going to go deep in most of them. There are teams that are more talented or have been more consistent throughout the season, but there are none that are playing as well as the Cardinals, and few that could match up to them when they are at their best.
The numbers are right there for everyone to see - Louisville has won nine straight games in the tough Big East, and they have covered in eight of those nine, including six as favorites. Thanks to their recent hot streak they are profitable on the season, and a ridiculously profitable 8-1-1 ATS on the road. They are at the top of the Big East, and a win over Georgetown on Saturday will give them at least a piece of the title. They are the third best team in the country at defending the field goal (no team shot over 50 percent on them all year), and 12th in defensive rebounding.
So how are they doing it? And, more importantly, can they keep doing it? Here's a look at the team as they get ready for March Madness:
David Padgett - The success of this team is due to the center who started his career at Kansas more than anyone else, and Rick Pitino can't find enough nice things to say about him. Padgett missed November and December with a broken kneecap, and it isn't a coincidence that this team has improved significantly since his return. His numbers (11.7 points, 4.7 rebounds) don't look stellar, but they don't tell the whole story. His last seven games, all wins, show the impact he can have. He had 18 or more points four different times, and topped out at 26 in a huge win over Notre Dame. Against Syracuse he got into foul trouble early and only added one point, but he still found ways to contribute with season highs for rebounds (10) and assists (5). Padgett is the real deal, and he is ready to lead this team far.
Rick Pitino - What is there not to like about this Al Pacino clone? You know the legend by now - he's led four different teams to the NCAA Tournament, and three to the Final Four. If he hadn't tried to conquer the NBA twice he'd be nipping at Bobby Knight's records by the time it was all over. He still might. The point isn't that Pitino is a good coach, though. That's a given. The point is that he is that good and is as excited about this team as he is. He's repeatedly said that Padgett is one of his favorite players, and he keeps talking about how tough, determined and resilient this squad is. Some of that is just the typical spin that comes from every coach, but it goes beyond what we normally hear from Pitino, and it certainly makes you take notice of the team.
Shooting woes - If there is an Achilles' heel for this team it is that they just aren't very good shooters. In fact, they are pretty bad - 273rd in free throw shooting, 180th in three pointers, 93rd in field goals. As bad as that is, though, things are getting brighter. They have exceed their season averages in at least two of those three categories in eight of the nine games of their current winning streak, and they have looked like a decent shooting team over the stretch if you take out the Syracuse disaster. They still aren't good, but they are better than they have been.
Balance - You can argue about the advantage of offensive balance if you want, but the undeniable fact is that Louisville is as balanced as any legitimate team outside of Xavier. Their leading scorer, Padget, averages 11.7 points per game. Their fourth highest scorer, Earl Clark, is averaging 10.4. Eight different players are averaging at least half as many points as Padgett. They lack a regular explosive element, though players step up when they need to. What they get instead, though, is an offensive effort that is very difficult to shut down - if you focus on any given player, four others are ready to score instead. When you combine a potent defense with an offense that won't overwhelm but is almost impossible to completely shut down you have a team that isn't going to lose a lot.
Momentum - I don't buy into momentum a whole lot when it comes to the tournament. The month before the tournament is so intense that how teams are playing usually makes little difference. There is one thing that really matters, though - the teams that tend to do well are the teams that come in with a swagger. It doesn't matter to me that the Cards have won nine in a row, and it wouldn't really matter if they went out and won the Big East Tournament. What does matter, though, is that watching this team for about two seconds is enough to show you that this is a squad that knows that they are good, that likes playing together, and that doesn't fear its' opponents. They aren't cocky, they are just confident from head to toe.