Sure, Louisville dropped a Big East nail biter to Syracuse over the weekend (and to 'Nova last night), but it would behoove you to disregard that quickly. What you need to know, is that the grass hasn’t been this green in the Bluegrass State for the Cardinals since the days of Pervis Ellison.
Three years ago, Rick Pitino’s professional and personal life was on the rocks after an extortion attempt forced him to publicly testify about a humiliating affair. To make matters worse, the Cardinals were bounced from the first round of the Big Dance Uncle Phil-style, while John Calipari wrestled back the steering wheel in the Commonwealth’s hoops crazy intrastate rivalry.
Three years later, the tables have been turned as Pitino’s Cardinals are in position to build off last year's Final Four run while Kentucky licks its wounds.
Additionally, Louisville is also winning the financial and head-to-head court battle with Kentucky. Suite rentals in the sparkling new KFC Yum! Center have made Louisville’s basketball program the nation’s most profitable and made Kentucky’s coffers look like The Wire’s Bubbles and Johnny in comparison.
Pitino’s on-court product isn’t as exciting to watch as Calipari’s NBA training academy, but come tournament time when the game slows down, their experience should trump Kentucky ‘s youth.
Calipari recruits players he can babysit until they’re draft-eligible while Pitino looks for athletes to develop in his system. Players such as "Russdiculous" Russ Smith. The Cardinals’ 6-1, 170 pound guard is a microcosm of the contrasting recruiting philosophies of the two coaches.
While Russ’ brother, J.R., was one of the last preps-to-pros phenoms, Russ was a lightly recruited 2-guard plucked out of South Kent (Conn.) Prep because of his ability to thrive and execute in Pitino’s high-pressure, full court zone defense. It’s a system that requires patience to learn.
After averaging 29.6 points per game as a senior at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, Smith was initially too trigger happy to see court action in Pitino’s disciplined offense and nearly transferred. According to Smith’s high school coach, Jack Curran, Russ shares his brother JR’s compulsive scoring instincts.
“When he gets the ball, he thinks he's supposed to score. He really can't help himself with that," Curran told Sports Illustrated. "I watched Russ the other night at Louisville [a game against Miami of Ohio], and he looked much more disciplined than he usually does.”
During a timeout last season, Smith showed why he’s been able to co-exist with his foul-mouthed head coach. While Pitino was in the midst of one of his infamous tirades, Smith walked over to the seething coach and wrapped him in a hug.
"He was about to lose it, so I gave him a hug to calm him down" Smith said.
Led by Smith, Louisville’s defensive pressure has wrapped opponents in a similarly disarming bear hug all season. Defense is a major component in Louisville, as they are allowing the fewest points per 100 possessions in the nation and ranked second nationally in turnover margin.
On the offensive end, a more mature Smith has become just as indispensable in this Cardinal’s line-up. In his first season as a starter, Smith has increased his scoring average to 19.3 from his sophomore average of 12.5 per, while simultaneously raising his field goal percentage seven points and taking a quarter of his team’s total shot attempts.
His newfound offensive discipline coupled with Louisville’s 16-2 record has made him the most unlikely National Player of The Year candidate in the nation.
Along with Peyton Siva, the Cardinals backcourt has opposing guards gasping for air in the halfcourt. While Smith is the shooter with the itchy trigger finger, point guard Peyton Siva is the senior distributor tasked with orchestrating the offense.
6-6, 250 pound sophomore Chane Benahan is the Cardinals’ post scoring muscle. The undersized Benahan poured in 20 points and outscored Kentucky’s towering freshmen Nerlen Noel and Willy Cauley-Stein in a Dec. 29 meeting.
At the heart of the defense, seven-footer Gorgui Dieng is the Cardinals Windex man cleaning up boards and swatting shots like flies at a record pace. The Senegalese junior is raw sushi offensively, but has a 7-6 wingspan that is just half an inch shorter than the NBA’s longest and enables him to clean windows without a scaffold or defend the post.
Since 2003 the average offensive/defensive efficiency ranking for a Final Four team was 12.8/9.9 and for national champions the ratio was 4/10. Louisville boasts a 13/1 OE/DE ranking. Led by George Mason transfer Luke Hancock, Louisville has outscored its opponent's bench in 14 of 18 games this season. Individually, Louisville’s chop shop of flawed athletes isn’t very aesthetically pleasing, but Pitino’s blueprint is proof that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.