Monday, October 4, 2010

2010-11 Preview -- Louisville Cardinals

Too Busy for the Details?
Probably the best candidate for "Team Turmoil" in the Big East the past three seasons, no other Big East team could challenge Louisville for sheer variety of distractions. One the court, off the court, injuries, players versus staff, players versus the law, staff versus the law. Name it and Louisville had at least one distraction of each type between 2007 and 2010. Somehow the Cardinals have persevered, garnering NCAA bids in each of the past four post seasons. Coach Pitino has taken the Cards to a (three or four lettered) post season tournament in every one of his nine seasons with the Cards. He should get there again in 2011; the question is whether that tournament will have three or four letters.  Prognosis -- A 2nd quartile finish.

3 Years At a Glance

#4/#5 Samardo Samuels was the only early-for-the-NBA departure from last season's squad. The 50% returning minutes is the cumulative effect of losing players through transfer. More troubling than replacing minutes however, is the scoring. The Cards, for all their problems, relied on the seniors (and Samuels) for a good part of their offense. In a well oiled system the returning players would be poised to pick up the scoring (and rebounding, and assist, etc.) slack.

According to Pomeroy...
Big East Pace65.6967.9766.59
Big East ORtg109.66106.3T7105.96
Big East DRtg105.8994.2191.41
Big East Def eFG%49.7T744.8244.32
Big East Def FTA%43.41331.3632.16
Big East DR%61.81366.3970.92

Possession-based stats are pretty good at cutting through perception and getting to facts. A common narrative about the 2010 edition of the Cardinals is that the staff had to retool the offense to accommodate a "slower" player (ie Samardo Samuels). The team struggled to adjust and subsequently slumped. Note the conference-game only stats derived from Ken Pomeroy's website above. Louisville's pace was never "breakneck", at least not in at least three seasons. The pace was consistently "average" for the conference (in conference games) and offensively, the 2007-2010 teams were in the top half of the conference for offensive efficiency, but hardly elite. The Cardinals dominated defensively 2007-2009, largely by defending the shot. The defensive boards were not the critical factor, note when the Cards' defensive rebounding fell into the middle of the conference the defense continued to dominate, even as their opponents' free throw rate (FTA/FGA) also remained in the middle of the conference. When the offense was late to defend the shot however (2010), not only did their shot defense fall, but they tended to foul and put their opponents on the line. The Cards' struggles on defense in 2010 is especially interesting because Coach Pitino persuaded his old protege Ralph Willard, head coach at Holy Cross and a defensive specialist, to rejoin his staff in the summer of 2009. Those charting Louisvilles' progress this season may want to key on the defense as perhaps the indicator on whether the Cards will recover their place among the conference elites.

For the Record...
Big East1170.6111620.8891440.778
Post Season?NCAA Rnd #1NCAA Rnd #4NCAA Rnd #4

For the skeptics in the Cardinal Nation, under Coach Pitino Louisville has won 20 or more games in eight of his nine seasons as head coach, twice winning more than 30 games. The Cards have been to the post season every year under Pitino, seven times (four consecutive going into this season) to the NCAA alone. Louisville has drawn a #1 seed once during Coach Pitino's run.

The Cardinal's Nucleus
Coach Rick Pitino returns a solid nucleus, and if the crucial players make progress, the staff can exhale. The problem for Louisville is that the returning group is largely the complement components to the team's 2010 nucleus, though to read 2010 preseason analysis and interviews, a few were supposed to play larger roles. If they proved to be "career complement" players, the staff does not have the luxury of a large pool of freshmen/transfers into which they can dip to mold the squad leaders for this season.

On Offense
Jared Swopshire61.7107.516.916.943.48.31.0139.5
Preston Knowles46.6103.221.924.944.17.60.9311.5
Terrence Jennings31.6116.118.318.661.713.61.2234.8
Kyle Kuric31.3119.213.215.355.38.21.1325.5
Rakeem Buckles27.2112.018.616.152.915.51.1547.7
Peyton Siva26.194.623.
Mike Marra20.196.918.423.939.43.30.8416.0

The numbers above show that though Jennings, Kuric and Buckles converted shots and possessions into points with amazing efficiency, they did so as the defense was focused on their teammates. Can the trio do the same when the defense makes them the priority? There is a good chance the Cardinal Nation will find out this season. Of the returning group, only Preston Knowles was a consistent second/third option on offense. Siva and Marra had typical freshman efficiency numbers. For Marra, the problem was shooting, he simply did not convert many of his shots (see eFG%), nor was he able to convert many of his FGAs to trips to the line (see his PPWS). Siva's problem is a bit more complicated. Note his shot conversion numbers (eFG%) was comparable to the most effience offensive players on the squad, and better than Swopshire and Knowles. Peyton's problem shows up in the table below. He was a turnover machine. His assist rate, 29.3 was awefully good for a freshman, but his turnover rate (he lost 1 in 3 of every one of his possessions), not overwhelmed his assist rate, and negated his shot conversion efficiency. They are capable of making progress this season, with Siva the strongest candidate, among the sophomores, to develop a "Go-to" type role in the offense.

On Defense
Jared Swopshire61.719.39.317.61.71.6
Preston Knowles46.69.822.
Terrence Jennings31.615.35.817.410.22.5
Kyle Kuric31.312.
Rakeem Buckles27.218.77.820.81.52.3
Peyton Siva26.16.929.333.30.65.2
Mike Marra20.19.010.713.02.42.2

Defensive rebounding was a problem area for Louisville's 2010 defense, returning numbers suggest more than is actually offered, but Buckles and Swopshire are good (Top 500 according to Pomeroy), and if Jennings gets more time, the three may be able to enforce a "one and done" policy on opposing shooters. I have listed Preston Knowles, though he was suspended during the summer of 2010, and as of this writing (mid September) has not been re-instated.

Significant Additions
The coach added three more staff members, which unfortunately may be the most significant additions to the squad this season. The dominant storyline this off season has been the near misses, in true freshman Justin Coleman and fifth year senior transfer Roburt Sallie. Listed on the off seasonn roster through most of the summer, Coach Pitino announced in late August that neither had passed NCAA qualification, and were not going to play for Louisville this season. The balance of the entering class, two true freshmen point guards, a true freshman center, a redshirt freshman forward and a walk-on transfer, are largely seen as complement players. Of this group, 6-9, 220 pound Gorgui Sy Dieng, a center out of Huntington, WV (and former teammate of Justin Coleman) is the stand out [10/5/2010 update -- Coach Pitino announced that Dieng would not be eligible for the 2010-11 season. The NCAA ruled that Dieng's academics were not in order]. If Terrence Jennings, George Goode, Jared Swopshire and Rakeem Buckles form an effective front court rotation however, he may not see much playing time this season. Russell Smith, a 6-1, 160 pound fifth year prep player from the South Kent School (Conn) might be the "most ready" to contribute. Smith, a New York City guard who logged four years at Archbishop Malloy, led the CHSAA in scoring for two years running. Unfortunately the freshman broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and problably won't see the court before New Year's. Elisha Justice, named Kentucky's Mr. Basketball as a senior in Shelby HS, Pikeville Kentucky, is a 5-10, 180 pound point guard who will add depth to the Cardinal backcourt. Richie Phares, a 6-9 redshirt forward and Chris Smith, a 6-2 junior guard transfer from Manhattan College in New York City, will walk-on this season, and may see limited action.

Explode If...
1. Peyton Siva can cut down significantly on his turnovers. If Siva's playing time (and number of possessions) grows this season, and he can reduce his turnovers to (say...) 20% or lower, all other things equal, he can add about 15-20 points to his own offensive efficiency. And that would bump Louisville's overall offensive efficiency by 5 or more points. That does not solve the problems on defense, but it provides a larger margin that an opponent would have to overcome.
2. Louisville's defense recovers. The Cards have ranked among the best in conference on defense, and while fans focus on the squad's offensive fireworks (Coach Pitino tends to recruit explosively athletic wings and forwards), strong defense has been the Cardinals' calling card with opponents.
3. A combination (or all?) from the group of Siva Swopshire, Jennings, Buckles and Knowles fills the scoring and leadership roles left by Samuels, Terrence Williams and Earl Clark.

Implode If...
Distractions have been tha bane of the program since Louisville joined the Big East. Last season the combination appeared to overwhelm the program. Coach Pitino's 19 month off-court drama appears to have been resolved. Only Preston Knowles seems to have off court business to resolve.
1. Peyton Siva proves unable to handle the pressures of running the Cardinal offense. The staff will have to draft a committee of Justice and Russell Smith to take up the task. That would not be good news for the team.
2. Injuries to members of the nucleus. Louisville is uncharacteristically shallow this season, and an injury to any of the returning starters from last season could spell deep trouble for the Cardinals, especially in conference play.

Crucial Run/Bellweather Games
The out of conference (OOC) schedule features games with national finalist Butler, Mountain West Conference powerhouse UNLV and recently revived traditional rival Kentucky. Butler will inaugurate Louisville's new downtown arena, the KFC Yum! Center in the Cards' season opener, while UNLV will be the featured opponent in the Billy Minardi Classic in early December. Kentucky comes to call at the end of December, and will close out Louisville's OOC season. A single road trip to Bowling Green to play Sun Belt Conference power house Western Kentucky breaks up the Cardinals' extended home stand. The Kentucky game tends to dominate the Cardinal Nation's evaluation of the early season. An unexpected loss in December 2007 set off nearly a month of speculation and fan angst that only a 12-4, second place finish in the Big East seemed to calm. Kentucky, expected to again dominate the SEC, nevertheless seems distracted with it's own player qualification problems. A win in this traditional, but high stakes state rivalry would bolster the program's confidence and reconnect the program with it's fan-base. Running the table in their OOC schedule would be unexpected, but given the extended home stand, that 13-0 record, good for a nice AP ranking, might be misleading. Western Kentucky, expected to finish atop the Sun Belt's East Division and bounce back to the NCAA's, maybe the best barometer on how the Cards will fare out of the KFC Yum! this season.

Louisville's mirror opponents are Connecticut, Providence and West Virginia. Connecticut, embroiled in it's own off court drama, may be an unexpectedly easy opponent this season, a benefit to a Louisville squad that is looking to bounce back as well. A 6-0 record versus those three would be unexpected, but 5-1/4-2 are reasonable if the Louisville wants to compete for a double bye seed in New York City. The Cardinals will play half of their Big East slate in January alone, rather hectic given that the last two conference regular season games are scheduled for March. A three game stretch that falls through the middle of January should be instructive. The 'Ville plays a road game against Villanova, then returns home to host Marquette, followed by St. John's, all during an eight day period. Going 3-0 would turn heads, but given that the Wildcats, Johnnies and Golden Eagles are all expected to finish in the same or higher quartile as Louisville, going no worse than 2-1 through this stretch should be important. Another three game run at the end of the month should also be telling. This one has the Cardinals playing three games in six days, staring with a home game against West Virginia, followed by consecutive road stops at Connecticut and Georgetown. Given the two mirror opponents and expected ranking of the teams, 2-1 at minimum would be a good indication the Cardinals are poised for a First Quartile return. 5-4 or better at the Big East mid-point would be good news for the Cardinal Nation. 4-5 would be fine, given the equal number of road and home games (and the opponent mix) in February. Anything lower ought to be cause for concern however.

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