Big Improvement under Pitino in Year 2
We're only 8 games into the season but already the accolades are coming in for this team. Being named ESPN's Team of the Week, a convincing 7-1 record, including an 18 point beating of then #14 Kentucky, a Top 25 national ranking and an even higher power ranking, which are all important to determine seeding in the NCAA Tournament come March. All impressive accolades for a program just two years removed from a 12-19 record. However, it's exactly the sort of quick recovery Cards fans dreamed possible on that wonderful day, March 21, 2001, when Rick Pitino announced to the college basketball world that it was his "time to lead the Cardinals back to prominence." Well, the mission and the dream are well under way.
With upcoming road games at Ohio State and Charlotte, the Cards are poised to show the few remaining skeptics that this team is a contender, now! A contender for what you might be asking yourself. Reasonable question that deserves a reasonable answer. The schools first ever C-USA basketball title? A top 10 national ranking? A ticket to New Orleans? Well, I'm of the persuasion that all of the above are well within reach for this team considering the improved shooting, talent and depth this squad possesses. So how in the name of Naismith could this team, a team that finished in the NIT with a respectable 19-13 record last season in just Coach Pitino's second season at UofL be ready for this type of season so quickly?
The answer is really quite simple. Think better shooting, a balanced inside-out offensive attack, dramatically improved team rebounding and defense, upgraded talent, and increased depth combined with tremendous individual instruction and coaching Rick Pitino is known for and you've found the answer.
While last seasons squad lacked interior scoring and often depended on undependable outside shooting, this team can answer with 6'10 Marvin Stone dropping 18.7 per game and 50% overall team shooting, including a remarkable 77% from the free throw line. Whereas last years team fought to break even on the back boards, this team has pounded opponents on the glass at a +8 per game clip and features two players, Ellis Myles and Marvin Stone, averaging 10 boards per game. And while the 2001-02 team struggled to find enough players capable of applying the constant defensive pressure Coach Pitino demands, this years version can legitimately go 12 deep and not lose much in terms of performance.
But the biggest improvement from last year to this is the tremendous amount of confidence and poise this group has displayed throughout its first 10 games. Despite playing without several key players, this team seemingly never rattled or gave into fatigue as they fought back from double digit deficits on the road against a solid Purdue team and Seton Hall of the Big East. And while the Cards came up just short to Purdue, a team that gave Indiana all it could handle, 86-84, they were a Luke Whitehead jump shot away from overtime. Want more proof? Despite playing four games in an eight day stretch in mid December, (Seton Hall, EKU, Manhattan, Furman) the Cards strung together four impressive, high octane, blowout performances. Granted those four teams might not end up wearing Cinderella slippers come March, but Manhattan just beat St. John's and Iona to win New York's Holiday Festival Tournament last weekend and both Furman and EKU had good athletes. But the big enchilada came against then #14 Kentucky, in which the Cards overcame an early 11 point first half hole and 15-1 rebounding deficit to completely dominate the Wildcats in the second half last Saturday, running away for an 18 point blowout victory on national television. A victory that earned the Cards the honor of being named "ESPN Team of the Week."
This team's best basketball lies ahead, though. Marvin Stone's only played three games with his redclad teammates and is still in an adjustment mode. Heady, sharp shooting freshmen Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean are still learning and adapting to the pace of big time college basketball. And Reece Gaines is adjusting to being more of a distributor than a scorer this season. By February though, this bunch could very well be one of the top 5-6 teams in the country. So far this season, I've seen two teams ahead of where our Cards are at this point in the season, Arizona (with Walton) and Texas. Of course there are several teams that have been impressive at times, Indiana, UK, Notre Dame, Mississippi State, UNC, Duke to name a few, but these teams have been no more impressive than the Cards have been in the early going. And while our Blue Brothers down the road might not like the idea, they better get used to it real quick, because there's two words that are ringing more true with each dribble of the ball, "WE'RE BACK!"
It should be a fun January, February and March for these Cards!
Statistical comparison between 2001-02 and 2002-03 Cards