At just about this precise moment a year ago, very bad things threatened to happen to Louisville. Three consecutive losses made for the team's longest streak of futility in three seasons. The No. 1 ranking that preceded those late-January defeats just enhanced the feeling of acute nausea. The Cardinals also were 48 hours away from another conference game, and head coach Rick Pitino noted that a fourth straight loss would mean that a sub.-500 conference record was all too realistic. And that was a very bad thing.
“You don’t want to mess with that,” Pitino told reporters after the third straight setback, a 53-51 slog at Georgetown.
Famously, that was exactly the time the Cardinals stopped messing around. A 12th-ranked Louisville team beat Pittsburgh at home in its next game to move to 17-4. The Cardinals lost just once more, in five overtimes at Notre Dame in early February, and then not again en route to the national title, 16 very sweet wins in a row that left no doubt they were the best team in the country.
Which brings us to late January in 2014 and a 12th-ranked Louisville team that is 17-3 and inspiring the same question now as it did then: Do the Cardinals have a run in them?
No. 13 Cincinnati visits the KFC Yum! Center on Thursday in a meeting of the two best teams in the American Athletic Conference, and it may be a barometer for just how much the Cardinals are beginning to figure things out. Because Pitino believes his team is doing just that.
“They’re coming along at exactly where I hoped," he said during his Wednesday news conference. "I was very, very concerned -- I wasn’t worried -- I was concerned about their inability to pick up things. Now that’s behind me.”
Pitino was referring specifically to Louisville's increasing mastery of the art of switching defenses – when to do it, why to do it – which is not only fundamental to who the Cardinals are but also to how they might advance in the postseason. Nimbly and effectively converting from one defense to the next, while losing none of the effectiveness, is crucial when so many varying styles fill the brackets.
“Right now, what we’re looking toward mid-February, is just being able to take all our defenses and recognize when to use them,” Pitino said. “We go and we play Connecticut – we don’t press at all. And then you turn around and South Florida, you’re pressing all over the place and trapping all over the place. We did not have the ability three weeks ago to do that."
Despite that learning curve, there is reason to think Louisville might actually become better defensively than last season's championship team was. In the stretch beginning with last season's Kentucky game and continuing through the championship game win over Michigan, Louisville allowed its opponents roughly 0.91 points per possession. In the stretch beginning with this season's Kentucky game and continuing to date, Louisville has allowed its opponents just under 0.92 points per possession.
It helps to have buzzards in the backcourt, too, and here Pitino sounded nearly giddy again Wednesday. The return of guard Chris Jones, who has been sidelined since Jan. 12 with an oblique injury but will be in uniform against the Bearcats on Saturday, affords the Cardinals a three-pronged guard attack to spearhead their defense.
Jones has averaged 11.3 points and 2.9 assists per game this season, and while senior Russ Smith is Louisville's indispensable cog, averaging 20.1 points in league play thus far, Pitino said, “We need Chris Jones desperately to be a good basketball team. He’s heck of a basketball player. A big steal guy, an explosive scorer, a hard-working guy, so we need him to be a very effective basketball team. We escaped while he was out. We escaped. And we’re very happy about that.”
The most resounding counterargument to Louisville’s potential requires all of eight syllables: Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, the rocks at the point and in the paint who were so essential to the team's title run a year ago. What that pair contributed can’t be replicated, not in the same way.
More tangibly, there are some issues on the glass (255th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage) and at the free-throw line (Louisville hits just 66.7 percent at the stripe) for the Cardinals to overcome if they are to reach a third straight Final Four. But they still have a good offense, ranked No. 21 nationally in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency rankings, and their steal percentage – how many opponent possessions end in a pilfer – is 14.2, fourth nationally.