Growing Pains

What contributed to Louisville's disappointing finish to the season on the hardwood and what will it take for the team to rebound next season? We've got your answers.

When things don't pan out the way we hope or think, there's often a multitude of reasons why that's the case. In the University of Louisville's case, the main culprits during a disappointing 2003-04 season were rebounding difficulties, a lack of offensive balance, and the inability to win close games.

With a 20-10 record, certainly Rick Pitino's third team at U of L had some impressive moments. Wins over Kentucky, Florida, Seton Hall, Cincinnati and Memphis were highlights. The 16-game winning streak during December and January and the accompanying No. 4 national ranking were nice. And a return trip, albeit a short one, to the NCAA Tournament were positive signs for a building program.

But there were a number of deficiencies that became apparent by midseason, namely the inability to compete on the glass against the more physical opponents on its schedule, the lack of a balanced offensive attack, and the inability to win tight games (Louisville finished 1-6 in games decided by five points or less and went 0-3 in overtime contests).

Clearly injuries to Taquan Dean, Francisco Garcia and Luke Whitehead played a part down the stretch as Louisville lost 9 their last 13 games. Had the injuries to those three not occurred, you have to wonder if the Cardinals would have struggled like they did? While no one knows the answer to that question, it's probably fair to assume they would have won at least a fair share of the close games they lost down the stretch. All told, Dean, Garcia and Whitehead missed 32 practices during the last month and a half of the season and surely had an impact on team chemistry.

But there were other problems, shortcomings unrelated to the injuries. The Cardinals often struggled to find consistent offensive production and struggled mightily against zone defenses. Remember the 15 point first half at TCU or the 10-minute scoring draught against Cincinnati during the first half of the C-USA quarterfinals when Garcia picked up his third foul? Why did Louisville struggle on offense? Just ponder this fact: In its 20 wins, Louisville averaged 77.5 points but only 63.9 points in 10 defeats.

There's probably a sophisticated answer involving terms like screening and hedging or player and ball movement. But essentially, the Cardinals offensive struggles were directly related to the lack of any consistent post presence. Neither Kendall Dartez or Otis George provided the Cards with the ability to catch the ball close to the hoop and make things happen offensively. Knowing this, opponents realized they could crowd Louisville's perimeter players and slow down the Cardinals offensive attack.

Louisville also struggled on the glass, especially against their more physical opponents. During the difficult February and March stretch, the Cardinals were out rebounded in nine of their last ten games by more than six boards per game. TCU crushed U of L by 16, DePaul bettered the Cardinals by 18 in Freedom Hall, and Charlotte, Cincinnati and Marquette each grabbed at least seven more boards than did Louisville in head-to-head action at the end of the season.

Myles will be major
factor next season for U of L
Clearly the loss of Ellis Myles, who will return next season for the Cardinals, would have made a difference on the glass in 2003-04, especially when injuries hampered Whitehead and Garcia late in the season. Myles, who grabbed 11 or more boards on seven occasions as a junior, should help tremendously in the rebounding department next season, particularly on the defensive boards. 6-foot-9 Brian Johnson, who averaged 12 rebounds at Oak Hill Academy and 6-foot-7 Donta Smith, who grabbed 12 boards per game at Southeastern Illinois C.C. should also juice up Louisville's rebounding numbers next season.

Led by two sophomores, the Cardinals didn't fare well in close games, either. And they blew more sizable leads in the second half of action than you expect from a Pitino coached team. To be sure, Louisville had an opportunity to win every game it lost on the season, save the game in Fort Worth, but couldn't close the deal down the stretch. Sometimes, not grabbing a critical rebound was the deciding factor. Other times, crucial turnovers or missed free throws at inopportune times or a defensive breakdown that contributed to defeat. It wasn't one area but a multitude of shortcomings that contributed to several close defeats late in the season.

So why in year three did Pitino's team have so many shortcomings?

In short, a few recruiting missteps have had an impact on the hardwood. Needing a point guard who could create offensively and apply pressure on defense and a quality interior prospect to both contribute easy baskets and big rebounds since his arrival in March 2001, Pitino simply hasn't been able to harvest either from his recruiting ventures, though not from lack of effort.

Players like Prileau Davis (junior college point guard), and Nouha Diakite (junior college center) didn't pan out. 6-foot-11 McDonald's All-America James Lang, who verbally committed to U of L, never showed up on campus and the same appears likely for 6-foot point guard Sebastian Telfair, who signed a letter of intent with U of L last November. And even the JUCO's who have played haven't been the contributors needed to take Louisville deep into post-season play, as evidenced by the Cardinals 1-2 record in NCAA play the past two seasons.

But things aren't entirely bleak on the recruiting front. 7-foot junior Clarence Holloway has already verbally committed and his presence will certainly answer some of the Cardinals questions inside. 6-foot-11 Terrance Farley, a project without question, has huge upside and could develop into a defensive force for Pitino down the road.

Pitino still needs to find a point guard capable of breaking down defenses off the dribble who can find open shooters and dish the ball when doubled in traffic. That's probably why securing a point guard this summer from the class of 2005 will be a big priority for Pitino and staff on the recruiting trail.

Still, Louisville's not far away from where both Pitino and fans want the program to be, which is consistently in the top ten. Despite a less than spectacular record, Louisville ranked high in several important national statistical categories, finishing the season 2nd nationally in field goal percentage defense (.378), 9th in scoring margain (+12.4), 15th in blocked shots per game (5.3), 21st in free throw percentage (74.8), 23rd in scoring defense (60.9), and 25th in three point goals per game (8).

With a top ten recruiting class on the way, and several experienced contributors returning next season, it's a safe bet Pitino's fourth team will be his best yet at Louisville.

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