Rick Pitino's team still has plenty of room to grow.
Against a team that was a missed three at the buzzer from beating Duke for the national championship last spring, Louisville turned in one of the more impressive performances during ESPN's 24-hour 'Marathon' of games Tuesday. Pitino's team, which featured five new starters, found itself on a big stage to open the season against a nationally-ranked opponent.
And the Cardinals, who were picked to finish eighth in the Big East, delivered a very promising performance against Butler, a team that returned four starters.
Pitino told his team before the game they had to do three things to beat Brad Stevens' Bulldogs: Rebound, make good decisions with the basketball against a tough Butler defense, and hit more three-pointers than their opponent.
When the clock ran out at the KFC Yum! Center late Tuesday night, the final stat sheet showed that Louisville had out-boarded a physical Butler team 44-39. It also showed that the Cardinals committed just three first half turnovers while building a commanding 41-23 halftime lead. And while both teams made six three's, Louisville's defense limited the Bulldogs to just 24 percent shooting from beyond the arch.
Before the game, Pitino said he didn't know what to expect from his young team. If last night's performance against Butler is an indication, the tenth-year UofL coach can expect his team to exceed its lowly preseason expectations.
Sophomore forward Rakeem Buckles picked up right where he left off in the NCAA Tourney loss to Cal last spring, leading the Cardinals with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Clearly, Buckles' game matured during the off-season. Besides scoring and boarding, Buckles made three steals, two assists and delivered several key plays down the stretch to ensure Louisville's win. He also made 2 of 4 three's, for good measure.
Louisville also received good production from junior center Terrence Jennings, who made 6 of 11 shots and finished with 13 points, 8 rebounds and four blocks in 33 minutes.
"Buckles is really good and Jennings was really good," Stevens said. "The thing I like about their team is that they are all fearless, they're all tough, they all play the right way. I know it's been a long year but I cannot imagine with players like that and depth like that that they won't have a great [season]."
Pitino's sophomore class stepped up big against Butler after playing supporting roles last season. Besides Buckles, Mike Marra was one of five Cardinals in double figures, scoring 11 points, to go with five boards and five assists. Though he only played 15 minutes because of foul problems, Peyton Siva out-scored Butler point guard Ronald Nored and handed out three assists. And Stephan Van Treese made the most of his nine minutes, spelling Buckles, while pitching in five points and two boards.
"Nobody knew except for the coaches, how much the freshmen would improve going into their sophomore year," Pitino said. "Every team I have coached from freshmen to sophomore year makes the biggest leap.
"Rock (Buckles) is improved. Peyton (Siva), you didn't see it tonight, but Peyton is a much improved basketball player. That whole class has really improved."
And though he doesn't have a "ready made" freshman class, Elisha Justice delivered a big-time performance in his first college game. Forget Justice's 12 points and six rebounds. Here's all you need to know about the freshman's performance: He committed only one turnover in 21 minutes against Butler's defensive-minded backcourt. Fear? Justice never wilted against Butler's pressure on a big stage.
"Bullet [Justice] is a heck of a player," said Pitino. "It is amazing that he didn't want anyone else to handle the basketball [late in the game] except him. And that speaks volumes about his guts and heart."
So what do we know about Louisville after one game? We know Pitino will rely on a balanced approach, rather than star power this season. We also know that this team will play with energy, at a fast pace and share the basketball, evidenced by 18 assists on their 27 baskets against the Bulldogs.
"One win, I don't think you can rate this basketball team, it's early," Pitino said. "But I do think this team is going to get a lot better. I do think this team enjoys the style of play. And we are going to improve, especially when we get Preston (Knowles) back."
And keep this mind when thinking about Louisville's growth potential. The Cardinals controlled the pace – and the game – against a Top 20 Butler team without senior captain Preston Knowles at full strength, and with junior forward Jared Swopshire, the team's only returning starter, sidelined with a groin injury.
"This is a starting point for us," Pitino said. "This is just the beginning for us because these players are going to get better and better as the season goes along."