Ashley: Assessing their performance in the last week, I am encouraged by the team’s high level of defensive intensity. The great thing about this level of intensity in November is that it will only get better as the season progresses. The only frustrating thing is that the players are mostly new to this defensive scheme, and while they are learning how to play hard defense while being smart and taking calculated gambles, there will be a lot of fouls called on the Cards.
The progression of the “big men” is what I’ve been eagerly waiting to see, and will continue to assess over the course of the season. For Mathiang, while I would like to see him create more opportunities for himself in the post, he made a couple of strong moves that gave me a little more faith in him as an offensive threat. He also did have four fouls with nine minutes still left in the game, and that’s something that cannot happen as the season goes on. Onuaku has grown on me significantly since last season, and at this point in the season, I will go ahead and crown him the most improved returning player (Jaylen Johnson is still in the running).
Something that we have not seen in a couple of years is a high level of camaraderie. The guys on this team seem to genuinely like one other; they want to see each other succeed for the sake of the team. I noticed multiple times during the Hartford game that the unit on the floor grabbed each other to huddle and talk to one another during dead ball situations. It demonstrates to the fans, and also to the other team, that no matter what, they will rally around and play for one another. It may not be very significant to folks right now, but it will mean a lot in March. So far this season, the Cards are shooting the ball better than last season, they are taking care of the ball, boasting just seven turnovers against Hartford and, on average, are out-rebounding opposing teams by 13 or more. We do need some serious work on our free throws; 62 percent will lose us games in conference. Overall, this is a solid team, and they will make some noise as the season continues.The only thing I don’t like about this team right now is their haircuts…or lack thereof! Next up is North Florida, which indeed will be a much more difficult test for the Cardinals. The Ospreys lead the nation in three-pointers taken per game and are shooting 48 percent from behind the arch. You may remember this team from last season because they made the school’s first ever NCAA Tournament appearance and are returning four starters from that team. This will be a match-up of experience versus youth in many respects, but it will surely make for an interesting game for the first time these two schools have ever played. My questions this week are: Can Louisville’s defense adjust to guard against a high percentage three-point shooting team? Will we continue to see more of Donovan Mitchell? How will Lee, Lewis and Snider play against a team that has guards just as big and aggressive as they are? I’m predicting CARDS by 15 in this game and then an easy win over St. Francis Brooklyn next Tuesday.
Scott: Having just settled into town last year as the season was starting, I didn’t get a chance to see a UofL game in person, so Tuesday night was my first time in the Yum for basketball, and I arrived just in time to hear Pitino scream, “SET THE FREAKING SCREEN,” after an early botched high pick that led to a turnover. And, from an outsider’s perspective — someone who lived in Ohio previously and only watched UofL during the tournament — that kind of intensity and obsession mixed with precision is what I always like about Louisville. In an intricate and aggressive defensive scheme, the team always looked simultaneously like a pack of wild dogs and a gang of robots on the defensive end, relentless and hungry for turnovers, but mechanical and always where they are supposed to be, frustrating the hell out of opposing offensives with that zone-man hybrid press.
The point guard and center are incredibly integral parts of that scheme, and they have two good players that hold those positions well: Quentin Snider seems to be a quintessential Pitino point guard, someone who pours his heart into the defensive press and then will instantly push the pace in transition, and Onuaku anchors the defense well, holding everything together and controlling the paint (he looks better on the offensive end of the floor, as well.) My final thought is on the rest of the bigs: There’s a decent amount of versatility here — besides a leader in Onuaku, add in Mathiang’s size and athleticism, Spalding’s ability to run the court, Mahmoud’s skill to stretch the floor and Stockman holding down the middle like an oak tree. Time will only tell if the strengths of these players outweigh their weaknesses, but I’m interested to find out.
While the Cards have completely dominated two lesser opponents, it is easy to write those wins off as one-sided match-ups from which little can be drawn. On the other hand, it doesn’t take a basketball aficionado to tell that this year’s Cards look a lot different than last year’s. While last year may have had known, NBA-caliber commodities, in Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier, it quite clearly lacked a cohesion characteristic … required of any great team. As Ashley Miller pointed out last week, some of Pitino’s best teams have been those without a superstar. Well, this year we certainly enter the season without one. As a result, this is a team that can’t defer to one or two-man ball. It’s going to be a team effort regardless of who the Cards play.And make no mistake about it, this team has plenty of talent and bodies. The frontline is large, athletic and appears to be a year improved — Onuaku in particular. The backcourt looks like it could be one of the best since Peyton and Russ, with speed, scoring and depth. As I said last week, there will undoubtedly be frustrations along the way with a team that is largely playing together for its first year. If they do find that chemistry, Cards fans won’t have to worry about getting somewhere with Wifi … the Final Four is on CBS. They could beat anybody.But if they don’t, they could lose to anybody, and thank goodness nobody saw us on TV.