Louisville is currently ranked No. 11 in the AP poll, which leads me to the conclusion that pollsters really do not like three-game losing steaks.
Let's get the bad news out of the way. Rick Pitino's team did indeed drop three in a row in the span of seven January days: at home to Syracuse, 70-68; at Villanova, 73-64; and at Georgetown, 53-51.
Now the good news. By just about any performance measure, this team is better than the one that Pitino took to the Final Four last April. The Cardinal offense is much better than it was last season (granted, that's a low hurdle), and the defense has improved as well (no small feat). In per-possession terms this is the best team in the Big East, one that's outscoring conference opponents by fully 0.16 points per possession. Year after year, this conference's best team is a legitimate Final Four threat. That's the case once again this season.
So set aside the rankings temporarily, and let's make t a fresh appraisal of the Cardinals, in this the last season of the "old" Big East.
A defense that stands out, even by Louisville standards
The burden that Louisville carries as a program is that excellent defense is just assumed. This season, however, the Cardinals are even better on that side of the ball than they were was last season. That's saying something, because in 2011-12 Pitino's rugged D quite literally carried a weak offensive team all the way to a national semifinal.
It's a tough precedent to top, but thus far this team is doing just that. In a league that's not lacking for very good defenses (I see you, Georgetown and Pittsburgh), Louisville rates out as No. 1, holding Big East opponents to just 0.89 points per trip. Coincidentally, the Cardinals have posted more or less the same figure for points allowed per effective (or turnover-less) possession as last season: 1.20 now, vs 1.21 then. But conference opponents are committing more turnovers now, giving the ball away on a whopping 26 percent of their trips.
I was on hand for Louisville's 68-48 win at Rutgers this week, and after the game I asked Pitino about the noticeable season-to-season improvement in his team's pressure defense. "Last year was very difficult for us," he told me, "because we had so many injuries that our press wasn't really wearing anyone down. More importantly our shooting percentages were so low that we couldn't even set up the press."
Good health and better shooting have indeed been the wind at this defense's back. Since Gorgui Dieng returned from a wrist injury just before the start of conference play, Pitino's had his full complement of players at his disposal. And while the Cardinals won't be mistaken for Creighton or Michigan in terms of accuracy from the field, they are hitting a respectable 49 percent of their twos and 33 percent of their threes against conference opponents. Both numbers represent an improvement over last season. As Pitino put it to me, "This year we're a much better offensive basketball team. We get to press more."
Dieng -- yes, Dieng -- is The Man
I realize discussions of Louisville are supposed to start with Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, and I'll get to those guys. But the player who's been on the floor for more minutes than anyone else in Big East play has been Gorgui Dieng. In conference action the the 6-11 junior's been in the game for fully 84 percent of the Cardinals' minutes, a remarkable workload for any big man much less a shot blocker.
"I do play him a lot of minutes," Pitino told me when I asked him about that rather surprising number, "and then in practice I rest him a lot. I just feel most comfortable when he's on the court." It's easy to see why. Against conference opponents Dieng has matched his season-long block rate exactly, swatting away 11 percent of opposing offenses' two-point attempts. And his coach is able to leave him on the floor because Dieng's averaging under three fouls per 40 minutes against Big East opponents. The big guy did foul out in the loss to Villanova, but for the most part in calendar 2013 he's not only been in the game but he's also been staying out of foul trouble. It's no coincidence that conference opponents are shooting just 42 percent on their twos.
In short, Louisville forces turnovers while also defending the rim. The stereotype with pressing teams is that once you break their pressure scoring's easy. Not with the 'Ville. This isn't feast or famine, it's feast or feast.
A coach usually gets just one Smith or Siva on D
After a strong start to the season, Smith's seen his shooting percentages dip in Big East play. Certainly that's a concern for a featured scorer who accounts for fully 34 percent of his team's shots (in-conference), but also keep in mind that Smith might accomplish more outside of shooting from the field than any guard in Division I. An 81 percent shooter at the line, Smith draws over six fouls per 40 minutes, and for a second consecutive season he's posting one of the nation's highest steal rates. His teammate Siva's breathing down his neck in that category, plus the senior's improved his three-point accuracy this season. ("Just repetition in the gym -- plus I got contacts," he told me.)
Blackshear is this season's Russ Smith ("Wayne-diculous"?)
Pitino's always tinkering with his rotation -- the only Cardinal that's started every game this season is Siva -- but the coach seems happiest when a key player is coming off the bench, logging big minutes, and taking on a large role in the offense. Last season that player was Smith, who made just seven starts but still functioned as his team's featured scorer. This season, suddenly, it's Wayne Blackshear. Pitino recently made the switch to having Blackshear come off the bench, and the coach appears to like it this way. When asked by reporters after the Rutgers win if the 6-5 sophomore might work his way back into the starting lineup, Pitino shrugged. "We're winning."
Whether Blackshear's starting or not, he's been highly effective, albeit in limited minutes. In Big East play he's made 54 percent of his twos and 37 percent of his threes, and he's posted those marks while personally accounting for 26 percent of the team's shots in conference play. Pitino's noticed Blackshear's progression, and he likes it. "He's developing a picture-perfect jump shot," the coach said, "and the last two weeks he's been 100 percent for the first time in three years."
At least one encouraging 0-3 precedent
Let's take one last look at Louisville's three-game losing streak, the one that has the pollsters so spooked. Three single-digit defeats in major-conference play, two of them on the road. Where have I heard that before?
Oh, right. Of course. In 2005-06 Florida lost three consecutive major-conference games by single digits, two of the defeats happened on the road, and the Gators' losing streak came even later in the season than the 2012-13 Cardinals' three-game skid. Things worked out pretty well for Billy Donovan's team that season.
I'm not guaranteeing a national title for Louisville. I am guaranteeing the polls overreacted to three close losses against quality opponents. The Cardinals are on my short list of teams who have a legitimate no-strangeness-required shot at winning it all. So you can look past the "No. 11" next to their name. It may not be there long.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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