Despite its loss to Michigan State on Wednesday, Louisville is proving it has been underestimated to start the season.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino suggested last week that his team was unranked because of something that came to light before the season. The investigation into allegations that a former graduate assistant paid escorts to have sex with players and recruits, according to Pitino, was diverting attention from what the Cardinals were accomplishing on the floor.
“I just think we’re just ignored. There’s so much talk about other things, they didn’t really focus in on basketball, but that's O.K.," he said, per the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Maybe Pitino had a point. The Cardinals were 5–0 and had won their games by an average of 33.6 points. They feature two talented transfers in Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, as well as a recruiting class including three top-50 prospects. Louisville had lost a number of key contributors, including its top four scorers, from the team that won 27 games and reached the Elite Eight last season, but the early returns were positive. So perhaps the Cardinals did deserve more consideration. The only problem was they hadn’t played anyone of note.
That changed on Wednesday, when Louisville took on Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., as part of the Big Ten/ACC challenge. For the Cardinals, this was a prime opportunity to prove their perfect record was more than merely a product of inferior competition by notching a signature victory over a Final Four threat. For the Spartans, it was a chance to continue a sensational opening to the season that included wins over No. 4 Kansas, Mountain West contender Boise State and a Providence team featuring player of the year candidate Kris Dunn.
Louisville fell short, but it can leave the Breslin Center feeling good about where it stands. The Cardinals gave Michigan State everything it could handle on its home floor, opening up a double-digit lead in the first half and pushing the Spartans down the stretch before they held on for a 71–67 win.
Michigan State had trouble dealing with Lewis and Lee. The two guards blew by defenders and either finished in the paint or got to the free throw line—where they both knocked down all five of their attempts—in ringing up 44 combined points. There were times when it seemed Lee and Lewis eschewed more favorable shot opportunities for others in favor of calling their own number, but Pitino can abide that tendency as long as they can continue to break down defenses off the dribble. Besides, Louisville has few reliable alternatives to create offense.
The Cardinals did well in the first half to gum up one of the nation’s most efficient scoring outfits. Louisville turned Michigan State over on a third of its possessions, limited it to 42% two-point shooting and 0.87 points per possession. Louisville is long and deep on the interior—it counts five rotation players standing 6'9" or taller and ranks 12th nationally in effective height—which helps to explain why it’s so effective at forcing misses inside the arc. The Cardinals lead the nation in opponents’ two-point field goal percentage and rank sixth in block percentage.
The problem for Louisville? Denzel Valentine. After tossing in this ridiculous shot before the break, he scored 15 points in the second half, including a layup at the 10:15 mark to tie the game for the first time and a corner three around the five-minute mark to give the Spartans a three-point lead. Valentine got help from Bryn Forbes, who finished with 20 points, and Deyonta Davis, who posted six rebounds and three blocks. But the national player of the year candidate is the creative hub around which the Spartans’ offense revolves. His scoring (25 points) and distribution (seven assists) drove them to another impressive nonconference W.
That Valentine, with some assistance, was able to dig Michigan State out of an early hole and lead it to a win should not be spun as an indictment of Louisville’s defense. The Cardinals won’t be presented with a tougher assignment—with a more potent array of bucket-getting and facilitation skills—during ACC play. Their coverage slipped at certain points in the second half of a road game against one of the nation’s best teams featuring arguably its best player. Louisville can move forward without any serious questions about its defensive standing. Indeed, this was a loss of the “good” variety, such that they exist for a team ranked No. 24 in the AP poll.
With upcoming matchups against Grand Canyon, Eastern Michigan, Kennesaw State, Western Kentucky, UMKC and Utah Valley, Louisville likely won’t be tested again until it faces Kentucky in Lexington the day after Christmas. If the Cardinals are as good as their first six games—including Wednesday—suggest, they’ll spend more time over the next few weeks correcting minor deficiencies than sweating out close games. The Cardinals would do well to develop scoring options to supplement Lee and Lewis. For as dynamic as those two are slashing to the basket, Louisville needs to be able to pry open defenses that excel at limiting dribble penetration.
The Cardinals have time to round into form. What’s clear, at this point, is that they’re legitimately good. Better than their seventh-in-the-ACC preseason projection and better than most observers who dismissed their undefeated start thought. Even without a win, Louisville passed its first big test of the season Wednesday. It’s safe to assume people won’t ignore this team anymore. Pitino was probably right.