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Louisville Cardinals: Are They For Real?

   by Matt Fargo - 02/28/2008

The Big East is currently ranked as the third toughest conference in the nation so any team near first place should feel pretty good about itself. That includes the Louisville Cardinals who are now only a half game out of first place, trailing Georgetown while clinging to a half-game lead over Notre Dame as well. The Cardinals host the Fighting Irish tonight in a game that will ultimately help decide the Big East regular season champion. I put the Louisville at the top of that list.

Looking at what the Cardinals have done recently should give this team a great chance at grabbing one of the number one seeds come NCAA Tournament time. Winning the regular season title and making it to at least the championship game in the Big East Tournament should be good enough for a top seed in my opinion. UCLA, North Carolina and Duke are likely number one seeds with Kansas, Memphis, Tennessee and the Big East Winner competing for that fourth coveted top spot.

After starting the season 5-3, Louisville has gone 17-3 since then and playing some of the best basketball in the entire country. Injuries played a big role in that slow start but since players have gotten healthy, Louisville has been tough to bring down. Two losses came against Cincinnati by a point and at Connecticut by two points, both games in which Louisville had shots at the end to win it. The third loss against Seton Hall was simply a game it didn’t show up in, coming off a big win over rival Marquette two days earlier.

While all of the wins are big, the one last Sunday against the Panthers stands out. With its victory over Pittsburgh, Louisville has won 10 of its last 12 road games which is a huge accomplishment for any team but more so for a team from the Big East. The Panthers are 94-10 on their home floor so that win was even more impressive. Those road wins are huge as far as the postseason is concerned because to advance and even sniff the National Championship, teams need to win on the road.

Two other cornerstones of this team are defense and depth. We all know the adage “Defense Wins Championshipsâ€쳌 and if that is the case, the Cardinals have what it takes. The Cardinals are allowing 37.5 percent shooting which is 4th nationally. Louisville has held 16 teams under 40 percent shooting, including 10 of its last 12 opponents. Louisville has held 15 opponents to 60 or fewer points this season, including 12 of the last 19 foes and 10 of its 15 Big East opponents. The Cardinals are 21st nationally in scoring defense.

The defense is as good as it is because of the depth the Cardinals have. While the injuries early in the season hurt, it gave the chance for other players to step in and grab some valuable experience. Louisville has eight players averaging 18 or more minutes and 11 players averaging at least seven mpg. This keeps the team fresh, helps with rotations and this is invaluable come tournament time. Against Pittsburgh, nine players scored and all nine grabbed at least one rebound. That is a huge edge that other teams just don’t have.

Don’t think it ends with just defense and depth as the offense is really picking things up for Louisville. The Cardinals have shot above 50 percent from the field in three of their last six games, including hitting 57.7 percent at Pittsburgh in its last game. In Big East games only, Louisville leads the conference in field goal percentage at 46.1 percent and it is 21-1 when shooting better from the field than its opponent this season and 7-0 when shooting 50 percent or better from the field.

Louisville is hurt by its current AP and RPI rankings, which is because of that poor start to the year. The Cardinals have gone from 23rd to 18th to 13th in the poll over the last three weeks which are no doubt huge jumps but this is not a 13th ranked team. Even worse, it is 14th in the RPI. A win over 21st RPI ranked Notre Dame will help for sure. The big game is the season finale at 7th RPI ranked Georgetown, a team it has already defeated once this season. Winning out will finally give the Cardinals the respect they deserve.

Louisville is just 6-7 ATS at home this season. That is a hard stat to overlook when taking the Cardinals but those losses mostly came early in the season. Looking forward to the postseason, Louisville is 9-3-1 ATS in its 13 road and neutral court games and those are the results that are going to count. The Cardinals are 12-3 ATS in 15 games where the line has been in single digits and that is where the number is going to fall come tournament time. Look for some solid takes with Louisville.

Putting everything together and you have arguably a national title contender. I think this is one of the sleeper teams in the country right now and even a lower seed, 2nd or 3rd, should not hurt them come tournament time. They possess everything needed to make one of those magical runs including a coach who obviously knows how to win. Rick Pitino is the only coach in college basketball history to take three different teams to the Final Four. That’s a guy I want on my sidelines.

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