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Louisville Playing As Expected

February 18, 2008 Columns No Comments

Cardinals Starting to Live Up to Expectations

by Phil Kasiecki

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – This is the Louisville team most people figured we would see before the season. This team – the one that’s now in a tie atop the Big East standings and has a lot of momentum there – is what we thought the Cardinals were, not the team we saw in December.

The Cardinals have recently looked every bit the deep team they were thought to be. A big part of that is health, as knee injuries to Juan Palacios and David Padgett led them to the point where the Cardinals desperately needed a major contribution from Derrick Caracter, who got suspended yet again along the way.

And although the Cardinals were winning, they didn’t look good in doing so. At the end of 2007, they were 9-3, and their losses aren’t bad at all – Brigham Young in Las Vegas, Dayton and Purdue (in Indianapolis). The latter two don’t look as bad as they did at the time, nor does the loss to Cincinnati at home on New Year’s Day. But at the time, the loss to Cincinnati had many thinking about how their rivalry game with Kentucky had lost a lot of luster since the Wildcat’s struggles in non-conference are well-documented.

Since the loss to Cincinnati, the Cardinals have been no a roll save for stumbling blocks at Seton Hall and Connecticut – again, the latter not being a bad loss and the former coming against a team capable of getting hot on a given night. Saturday’s 80-72 win at Providence was their fifth straight win and puts them in a tie atop the Big East, and they hold the tie-breaker with Georgetown since they knocked off the Hoyas last Saturday.

What we see with the Cardinals this season is a classic case of a team with some early adversity coming together late in the season with their entire team intact for. It’s not uncommon given the injuries that occur, and oftentimes some early struggles because of personnel losses give a team a chance to develop depth. That development isn’t just in having more bodies capable of contributing, as it also encompasses having more players who could contribute significantly. When that happens, a team is much more dangerous because one or two players could have an off night, but the team could still win against good teams because they have other players who are just as capable.

Four Cardinals average in double figures on the season, while three players average at least 5.5 rebounds per game. Eight different players have led the team in scoring in a game this season and two more have scored at least 10 points in a game. And a number of players have looked like most valuable players at one point or another on the season.

“Louisville’s got a lot of answers, and that’s the problem,” said Providence head coach Tim Welsh.

While the value of players like leading scorer and assist man Terrence Williams and leading rebounder Earl Clark might be obvious, less obvious is that of third-leading scorer Jerry Smith, who really lead the way early in Big East play. But no one may be more valuable than Padgett, whose career was thought to be over when he suffered his latest injury. He doesn’t put up huge numbers – he’s second on the team in scoring but fourth in rebounding – he’s immensely valuable to this team. Indeed, even his assist total (23 in 16 games) doesn’t show it.

Padgett, who started his college career at Kansas, is the son of a coach, as he played for his father at Reno (NV) High School. Watching him play, it’s not surprising, as he shows an excellent feel for the game and makes the offense go. He’s a scoring threat, but also knows how to help facilitate the offense from his position, often facing the basket near the foul line.

“When you pick up the stat sheet and look at David Padgett’s numbers, it’s truly not the appreciation for what he does for a basketball team,” said head coach Rick Pitino. “He does so many great things.”

A team’s leader is often their point guard, who has to be an extension of the coach on the floor. The best ones are often described in such a manner as well. While Padgett doesn’t put up big numbers, he helps enable those of everyone else. No one is putting up such numbers on this well-balanced team, but the Cardinals as a whole are doing just that.

Defensively, Padgett’s importance can often be seen by his absence. When he has been in foul trouble, it has come in part because of dribble penetration allowed by the guards. When he has been out, the defense has suffered.

But of late, he’s been in there, and it’s a big reason the Cardinals are on the roll they are currently on. Right now, the Cardinals are playing about as well defensively as any team, ranking seventh nationally in field goal percentage defense.

“He’s an extremely bright person,” said Pitino. “On the court, it’s surprising when you see a big guy be that good a leader. It’s hardly a big guy. But he’s to us what Roy Hibbert is to Georgetown – the offense goes better.

“It’s not easy to find guys like that who just think about the team.”

With Padgett back in the lineup, as well as Palacios, the Cardinals don’t need to rely on Caracter or even ask him to do much. And with them in the lineup, they have their full squad, and look more like a team that could go to the Final Four than a team that might barely make the NCAA Tournament.


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