Louisville enters this weekend's showdown against Kentucky as the nation's No. 4-ranked team, and there's a case to be made that the Cardinals' success to this point in the season represents a clear instance of the dog that didn't bark. Rick Pitino's team is right where everyone expected them to be (Louisville was ranked No. 2 in the preseason), but that doesn't mean an 11-1 record was foreordained for this group. In fact the Cardinals have had to make at least one major improvement simply to live up to expectations.
Pitino was able to guide his team to an appearance in the 2012 Final Four despite the fact that this was the No. 12-ranked offense in the Big East last season. (I don't wish to shock anyone, but that level of performance was worse than what we saw from DePaul, to name one not terribly formidable comparison.) The key words there are of course "appearance in the 2012 Final Four," however, "worse than DePaul" surely carries some descriptive heft as well, and the Cardinals' best shot at another national semifinal was always going to entail a substantial improvement on offense.
That is exactly what has happened. But before I detail the Cardinals' improvement on offense, let me be clear.
One of the nation's top defenses -- again
The topic of the Cardinals' new and better offense is of interest only because their defense is still amazing, just like it was last season. Duke scored 1.03 points per possession in handing Pitino's team its only loss, and Memphis recorded the same number against this D. Those two games represent the Louisville defense at its "worst," which is appropriate because that defense held the Blue Devils' offense to their season-low performance in terms of efficiency.
Opponents facing the Cardinals' defense have committed a turnover on an astonishing 31 percent of their possessions, but this is no "feast or famine" defense. Even when opponents hang on to the ball, they still don't fare very well against this D, scoring just 1.15 points per turnover-less, or "effective," possession. In other words while it's true Louisville won't be able to maintain their ostentatious opponent turnover rate once Big East play starts, don't expect this defense to drop off too far as a result.
Lastly, keep in mind this stellar defensive record was put together with minimal contributions from 6-11 shot blocker Gorgui Dieng, who has missed seven games with a wrist injury but is expected to start against Kentucky. Dieng rejoining what may already be the nation's best defense falls squarely under the heading of the rich getting richer.
Now this superb Louisville defense appears to have company, in the form of a very good offense. Getting to this point required one very significant change.
Give points a chance
In September I had this to say about Louisville:
If a team with a defense this good can achieve mere mediocrity when it comes to holding on to the rock, it can pay big dividends. Strictly speaking, the problem last season wasn't that the Cardinals couldn't score. The problem was that they didn't give themselves enough chances to score.
It's now clear to me that Pitino reads my work, because suddenly Louisville is taking much better care of the basketball. The Cardinals have given the ball away on just 18 percent of their possessions thus far on the young season. That, plus better shooting inside the arc, has resulted in a dramatic improvement on offense.
Give a lot of the credit here to Peyton Siva, who has lowered his personal turnover rate significantly. In fact Siva is a pretty good symbol for Louisville as a team. He's always been an excellent defender, and over the course of four seasons his offense has evolved to the point where he is now an exemplary point guard. If he keeps making 38 percent of his threes, as he's done so far in his senior season, the "book" on Siva will need to change, and opponents will have to respect his perimeter shot.
As for the book on Siva's backcourt mate, well, it's always an interesting read....
Russ Smith is never dull
Entering this season, Russ Smith had been known to shoot first and ask questions later. (Questions pertaining to accuracy, for instance.) And while his shooting percentages this season mark an improvement over 2011-12, look a little closer: Smith got off to an amazing start as a senior, draining 23 of his first 47 shots from the field. Since that time, however, Smith's accuracy has more or less stabilized at a lower level. Over his past nine games, Smith has made 32 percent of his threes and 46 percent of his twos.
Of course Smith also draws almost seven fouls per 40 minutes, and shoots 81 percent at the line. And then there's the small matter of his defense. It's fantastic, and that amazing opponent turnover rate referenced above didn't just happen all by itself. Said turnover rate had help in the form of the 34 steals recorded by Smith.
Put it all together, and there's no doubt that Smith is a net positive for the Cardinals. It is, however, an unusual distribution of positives, particularly for a featured scorer carrying one of the largest possession loads of any player in Division I. For a long time now, Louisville fans have been apprehensive whenever they see Smith attempt a shot from the field. They still are, and that is justified.
The Big East is on notice
As the season progresses I won't be surprised to see some portion of Smith's workload on offense transferred to Louisville's two outstanding sophomores, Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear. Don't look for either of these guys to set a record for assists, but that's just fine with Pitino because both players have been making their shots. Blackshear in particular has been excellent, and the good "problem" facing Pitino is simply how to get his 6-5 sophomore more than just 21 minutes a game.
In our latest Power Rankings at ESPN.com, I notice that I have Louisville ranked higher (No. 2) than any other voter. I'm fine with that. For a while now it's been generally understood that "Louisville with a good offense" would be a scary thought for opponents. That's precisely what we see now from the Cardinals. Another trip to the Final Four won't strike many observers as a big surprise, but if it does happen give Pitino credit. Louisville has had to change their ways to be as good as we expected.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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