From pretty much the moment Louisville was knocked out in the NCAA tournament regional final in March, it became a team of moving parts.
There were the borderline-inevitable departures of Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier to the NBA. There was a mad scramble to claim some of the best prizes on the graduate transfer market and enough early-season injuries to keep the Cardinals just shy of completion.
Now 9-1, Rick Pitino’s team is acing pretty much any metric (save one) placed in front of it. Its only loss came by four points on the road against Michigan State, which is playing about as well as anyone.
Still, there’s one question hovering: Just how good are the Cardinals, anyway?
This is a team, after all, clobbering opponents by an average of 30.4 points. Louisville is a KenPom.com darling, ranking No. 6 overall nationally and No. 4 in defensive efficiency through Sunday. The Cardinals entered the week a more reasonable No. 18 in CBSSports.com’s RPI replica, with a nonconference schedule ranked No. 84 in that model.
There are two notes of caution here: One, it’s only a third of the way into the season, so the data is limited. Two, the KenPom metric spits out a No. 318 nonconference strength of schedule to date, which is probably closer to reality than the RPI’s all-purpose formula.
And it might be a while before the Cardinals are fully figured out, even with a busy holiday week capped by Saturday’s visit to Kentucky. Louisville plays a home-and-home against Duke, with both games in February. The first of its two games against Virginia is Jan. 30. It plays host to North Carolina on Feb. 1 and visits Miami on Feb. 27.
That provides time for the Cardinals to stabilize even more. They’ve been without promising freshman Deng Adel for the last month, but he was expected to return this week. Yet that comes just after center Mangok Mathiang (7.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game) was lost for six-to-eight weeks with a broken foot.
For the moment (and probably for the entire season), Pitino appears wise for seeking quick fixes with graduate transfers. Damion Lee scored in bunches at Drexel, and he’s done the same for Louisville, averaging 18.3 points entering the week. Former Cleveland State guard Trey Lewis (13.8 ppg) is the Cardinals’ No. 2 scorer. Holdover Quentin Snider (3.9 assist-to-turnover ratio) is plenty capable at the point.
The ultimate answer for determining Louisville’s ceiling will probably stem from the progress of freshmen Donovan Mitchell (7.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg), Ray Spalding (6.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Adel (4.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg), none of whom are averaging even 20 minutes a contest.
Aside from Mathiang’s eventual return, those are the last of this season’s obvious moving parts in Pitino’s arsenal. It’s tough to tell just what the Cardinals can accomplish based on their competition to date, but they have the makings of a bunch that could far exceed its No. 7 slot in the ACC’s preseason poll.
Who is the only active ACC coach with 100 victories at three different schools?
Gbinije chases history
Former Duke forward Michael Gbinije’s transformation into a high-level point guard at Syracuse over the last year qualifies as a bit of a surprise considering how lost he appeared in the first month of his junior season. But his last 12 months have been spectacular and place him in contention to set some ACC history in the process.
Gbinije ranks third in the league in scoring at 19.1 points per game, behind only N.C. State’s Cat Barber and Duke’s Grayson Allen. He also leads the conference with 2.8 steals per game. No ACC player has ever paced the league in both categories in the same season since the start of tracking steals in 1976-77.
Only one player has led the ACC in both categories in different seasons. Florida State’s Toney Douglas topped the league with 2.7 steals per game in 2007-08 and then averaged an ACC-best 21.5 points the following year.
The only current ACC coach with 100 victories at three different schools is Jim Larranaga, who reached the 100-win plateau at Miami with Saturday’s 85-63 win over College of Charleston. Larranaga previously won 170 games at Bowling Green and 273 games at George Mason.
Four other ACC coaches have at least 100 victories at two schools: Leonard Hamilton (Miami and Florida State), Mark Gottfried (Alabama and N.C. State), Roy Williams (Kansas and North Carolina) and Pitino (Kentucky and Louisville).