Contender Report: Louisville
Despite all the talk about Pittsburgh and Connecticut, it was actually the Louisville Cardinals who were the 2009 Big East regular season champion.
Rick Pitino’s bunch is athletic and talented, and may be the deepest team of any of college basketball’s true contenders.
Louisville has won 17 of its last 19 games, and enters the Big East tournament looking to wrap up a No. 1 seed heading into the Big Dance.
But despite all the wins, there are some equally head-scratching losses.
Early season defeats to Western Kentucky and UNLV had Cardinal nation concerned, and an February loss by 30 points at Notre Dame got the attention of the entire college basketball world.
Louisville has been great of late, but were the early season losses just blips on the radar, or a sign of things to come?
Why They Will A National Championship:
For all the talk in the Big East about DeJuan Blair and Hasheem Thabeet, Louisville’s Terrence Williams is just as important to his team.
Williams, a senior, is listed as a forward, but at times he has essentially played all five positions on the court. He is second on the team in scoring and rebounding, while also leading the Cardinals in assists and steals. Most importantly, he is the emotional leader for this veteran team.
Louisville is also blessed with a ton of talent down low, led by future lottery pick Earl Clark. The junior from New Jersey has been phenomenal this season averaging close to 14 points and 9 rebounds a game.
Clark is joined in the frontcourt by a pair of ferocious freshmen, Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings. Both have been inconsistent at times, but give Louisville big bodies, and a tough low post presence that can match-up with anyone.
On the perimeter the Cardinals have a trio of excellent three-point shooters. Despite not quite putting up the numbers they did a year ago, both Andre McGhee and Jerry Smith are deadly when left open from behind the arc, with Preston Knowles contributing both from behind the arc and in the lane.
Finally, who better to coach your team in March than Rick Pitino, who’s lead four teams to the NCAA and three to the Final Four, including Louisville in 2005. Pitino also won a National Championship at Kentucky in 1996.
Few, if any team in college basketball can boast the combination of experience, skill and coaching that Louisville does, which is why they’ll be a favorite come March.
Why They Won’t:
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: no team that has lost by 30 points in February (which Louisville did February 12 at Notre Dame) has ever gone on to win a National Championship. Period.
The Cardinals have been phenomenal since, but the loss certainly has to be a red flag for anyone putting their money on Louisville in March.
Also, for all their talented perimeter players, no one has proven themselves capable of running this offense besides Williams.
Junior Edgar Sosa has been enigmatic throughout his career at Louisville, at times looking the McDonalds All-American he was coming out of high school, at others like he doesn’t belong on the court at all.
If Williams does get into foul trouble, the ball will probably be in Sosa’s hands and he needs to step up and be effective for this team to continue to advance.
And finally, for all the talk about Clark’s talent, there have been times during games where he has completely disappeared this season.
While the junior has been more consistent of late, he does often struggle when matched up with a player of equal athleticism and skill that he does.
This team has loads of talent, but needs Clark to be the nightly double-double that he has been for virtually the entire second half of the year if they are to advance deep into March.
Because of the early season losses, the Cardinals do not get nearly the credit they deserve.
Remember, in a year in which the Big East was called arguably the toughest conference ever, it was Louisville which won it outright.
This team is probably the deepest of all of college basketball’s contenders, and could weather foul trouble or overall poor play from anyone other than Williams.
Louisville hasn’t played any of the Big East’s big boys in quite some time, so the Big East Tournament will be an excellent proving ground to show whether they can be taken seriously when the tournament starts in just under a week.