Exceeding ExpectationsThis was easily one of Rick Pitino's best coaching jobs at Louisville, perhaps his best. Pitino had to replace all five starters from last season, endured one injury after another during the season, and still found a way to guide a team picked to finish eighth in the preseason Big East poll to a third place finish in the nation's top league – a league that will send 11 teams to the Big Dance.
Termed a ‘bridge' year by Pitino before the season, the 2010-11 season has turned into one of the most fun campaigns of Pitino's tenure. Pitino might not receive Big East Coach of the Year honors, but he's certainly deserving given Louisville's 23-8 regular-season that included wins over nine probable NCAA Tournament teams, including Big East regular-season champion and likely No. 1 seed Pittsburgh.
Cardiac CardsNot blessed with overwhelming talent or depth, Louisville found itself in several close games this season. More often than not, Rick Pitino's team came out on top in the season's many nailbiters. In games decided by five points or less, Louisville was 6-3 this season and that record could have been better if not for West Virginia's miracle comeback in the final minute of Saturday's regular-season finale.
There were plenty of memorable finishes. Louisville's 71-70 win over Marquette would be hard to top considering the Cardinals overcame an 18-point deficit in the final five minutes to stun the Golden Eagles. Shortly after Louisville stunned Marquette, the Cardinals won consecutive one-point decisions against West Virginia and UConn – overcoming sizable second half deficits in both games. Louisville's 62-59 overtime win over Pittsburgh won't soon be forgotten, if only because a technical on a Cardinal cheerleader nearly jeopardized Louisville's chances for victory. Louisville was 2-1 in overtime – beating UConn and Pitt, and losing to Notre Dame.
Coachable CardinalsRick Pitino said throughout the season that his current team is one of the most coachable groups he's worked with during his illustrious career. The individual ego's that negatively impacted Louisville's chemistry last season weren't a problem this season. There were no individual egos from this team-first bunch. The team's attitude reflected that of senior team captain Preston Knowles, who, as Pitino tells it, only cared about one thing this season – winning. That's why this team has endured itself to the Louisville fanbase – they've played incredibly hard and given every ouch of energy each time out this season. Win or lose, Pitino knows his players are going to do what's asked of them and put forth tremendous effort every time they step on the court. It's hard to ask for more than that.
"Sometimes you miss coaching players like this and they kind of restore your faith in everything you believe in as a coach, this team," Pitino said. "It was wonderful to coach them this year. I owe them a great debt of thanks because it was a really wonderful, wonderful season."
Stepping UpWho would have guessed Preston Knowles would have emerged as a true leader for Rick Pitino's young team, especially given his off-season troubles? But Knowles stepped up his game on the court and in the locker room. Louisville's Most Valuable Player, Knowles increased his scoring average by seven points from his junior and senior seasons, earning second team All-Big East honors.
Knowles wasn't the only Cardinal that stepped his game up this season. Sophomore Peyton Siva, in his first season as the starting point guard, emerged as the Cardinals top playmaker, finishing fifth in assists in the Big East. Junior small forward Kyle Kuric flashed his scoring potential late last season against Syracuse, and developed into one of the Cardinals most potent scoring weapons as a junior. Kuric scored more than 20 points in four of UofL's final eight games, including 25 against Providence and 21 at West Virginia. Junior center Terrence Jennings also increased his production after stepping out of Samardo Samuels' shadow. Jennings scoring and rebounding increased this season and he improved significantly from the free throw line.
Board ChallengedLouisville's one glaring weakness this season has been rebounding. In Louisville's eight regular-season losses, the Cards were out-boarded by nearly nine rebounds per game. In the regular-season finale against West Virginia, the Mountaineers held an incredible 24 rebound advantage. The numbers are clear in this department: Louisville out-rebounded opponents 18 times this season and won 16 of those games. In five of their eight losses, the Cardinals were out-rebounded by double digits (26-46 vs. Drexel, 25-36 vs. Kentucky, 25-41 at Villanova, 30-42 at Notre Dame, 25-49 at West Virginia). Louisville's rebounding problems were compounded by injuries to power forwards Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles. Swopshire, the team's leading returning rebounder, didn't play this season with a groin injury. Buckles, the leading board man this season, missed 12 games, returned for five games and now is out for the season after tearing his ACL.
Bombs AwayLouisville owes much of its success this season to its three-point shooting. The Cards lead the Big East in three-point shooting at 8.8 three's per game, which is the second-best average for a Pitino-coached team at Louisville, trailing only the Final Four squad, which averaged 9.5 three's per contest in 2004-05. Louisville ranks 11th nationally in three-pointers and has made seven or more three's in 20 games this season. Five Cardinals have made more than 20 three-pointers this season. Preston Knowles leads the team with 88 three's, followed by 61 from Kyle Kuric.
March MadnessHow far can Louisville go in the post-season? With the right draw, the Cardinals could be a dangerous tournament team because of their shooting ability, Pitino's NCAA coaching experience and improved defensive play late in the season.
Clearly, Louisville hopes to avoid teams with physically imposing frontcourt players that pound the boards. If Louisville plans to dance long, Preston Knowles and Kyle Kuric need to be ‘on' to carry the offensive load. The Cardinals also need solid play – and decision-making – from Peyton Siva and production in the post from Terrence Jennings. With Rakeem Buckles out, Louisville needs Stephan Van Treese to step up his play and deliver solid minutes like he did Saturday in the second half at West Virginia. If the Cardinals can hold their own on the boards, and continue playing defense as they did down the stretch (UofL's last five opponents have shot a combined 34.5 percent from the field), a Sweet 16 or beyond finish isn't out of the question.