Louisville 4-0 But A Long Way From Potential

Three victories in three days in Freedom Hall left Rick Pitino's Louisville team 4-0 despite injuries that slowed the preseason progress of Juan Palacios and David Padgett. As the two post players continue to mesh with a stellar group of freshmen and returnees such as Taquan Dean, the team's March potential seems almost limitless.

The Louisville basketball team we're watching right now isn't anything close to what we'll see purring along like a Final Four-bound club in late February or early March.

 

Most of the ingredients for that evolution now seem in place, though, and more importantly, healthy.

 

Considering how much workout and practice time was missed by sophomore post players David Padgett and Juan Palacios, and the fact that the Cardinals are depending on immediate contributions from multiple freshmen, it's not surprising that there were some bumps in the road over the course of the team's three games in three days, Saturday-Monday stretch.

 

The narrow (12- and eight-point margin) decisions over Arkansas State and Richmond Sunday and Monday are more indicative of how far along the team – minus so many key members from the Final Four squad of last spring – is than was the 23-point cruise-control victory over Prairie View A&M Saturday.

 

Palacios and Padgett, the most skilled set of big men Rick Pitino has had at his disposal at Louisville, will need to continue to mesh before the team's first trek outside of Louisville – a little venture to Lexington for a Dec. 17 afternoon in Rupp Arena.

 

In the meantime, senior guard Taquan Dean relied on the quick snap of his right wrist to help the Cardinals surpass the team's Sunday and Monday opponents (the latter which held a 10-point advantage in the second half), knocking in 11 of 23 attempts from behind the 3-point arc in the games.

 

*Illinois, which plays host to Georgetown on Thursday night then heads to the Pacific Northwest for a game with the University of Oregon on Saturday evening, is off to an 8-0 start.

 

That's not nearly as surprising as how the Illini have accomplished that feat.

 

They've done it despite the chilly shooting of senior guard Dee Brown, the Big Ten Conference's Player of the Year last season over teammates (and now NBA starters) Deron Williams and Luther Head.

 

Brown is just 19 of 64 from the field (including six of 32 on 3's) in the last five of those eight victories, against Wichita State, Rutgers, North Carolina, Xavier and Arkansas Little Rock.

 

But if Brown's jumper starts dropping with some regularity, it is possible Coach Bruce Weber's team could 14-0 record going into the start of conference play – a Jan. 5 meeting with Big Ten favorite Michigan State in Champaign.

 

How many of you all thought that was a possibility last summer?

 

*As good as Adam Morrison of Gonzaga is – and he is clearly the most polished, efficient and explosive offensive player on the college level right now – the remarkable thing isn't that the University of Washington Huskies were able to hold off the Bulldogs Sunday night, 99-95, despite Morrison's second 43-point performance of the season.

 

What is surprising (at least mildly so) is how well Gonzaga was able to function throughout most of the game in Seattle, despite going into it without starting forward Erroll Knight and without a future star in the post in red-shirt freshmen Josh Heytvelt (both sidelined following surgery). If that wasn't enough, the Bulldogs lost sophomore point guard Derek Raivio due to the sore back he incurred in the first half and wasn't able to return from.

 

Coach Mark Few was expected to have his deepest-ever and most-talented Gonzaga team this season. The Bulldogs' three-day performance during the EA Sports/Maui Invitational, as well as way they did against Washington Sunday night, did nothing to make anyone think differently.

 

*With the loss of the program's top seven players, four of those lottery selections in the most recent NBA Draft, the expectation level – at least, outside of Chapel Hill and any other location where Tar Heels' hoops are held near and dear – for the 2005-06 North Carolina team was lowered considerably.

 

Well, that didn't last long, did it?

 

The near-miss at home against Illinois and then the surprisingly dominant victory in Rupp Arena against a Kentucky team that, quite frankly, was overrated by most going into the season, demonstrated that the Tar Heels aren't just operating in the "wait until next season" mode with a sensational group from the high school Class of 2006 headed their way.

 

Roy Williams' starting frontcourt of freshman center Tyler Hansbrough and senior and sophomore forwards David Noel and Reyshawn Terry – which has cumulative averages of 44 points and 20 rebounds – may, in reality, have only five or six peers in the country right now.

 

And freshmen Bobby Frasor, Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard, along with junior walk-on Wes Miller, were sensational in the backcourt in their poise and execution in Lexington.

 

I wouldn't be startled if the Tar Heels finish as high as third in the Atlantic Coast Conference behind Duke and Boston College, and land an NCAA Tournament seed somewhere in the four to six range.

 

*In light of Arizona's and Stanford's disappointing starts (three losses apiece), and despite Washington's 7-0 burst out of the gates, it wouldn't be particularly startling if Cal has the best team in the Pacific 10 Conference by March.

 

That's banking on Ben Braun's team getting, and remaining, healthy.

 

Senior forward Rod Benson, the Golden Bears' leading scorer and rebounder last season in the absence of Leon Powe while he was recuperating and rehabilitating from reconstructive knee surgery, has played just 19 minutes over two games so far because of a painful heel.

 

But, after missing the first four games this season due to an injury apparently unrelated to his knee issues (a stress "reaction" in a foot), Powe is playing like the most physical dominating post player in the conference that everyone expected him to be, averaging 26.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.

 

With 6-10, 225-pound DeVon Hardin having a forceful start (14.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game) to his sophomore season, it's understandable why coaches within the conference feel Braun's got the best set of post players in the Pac 10.

 

An April inductee into the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's national basketball expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.FrankHoops.com


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