It’s practically a Rick Pitino trademark for how his Louisville Cardinals run a season. They start slow, losing to a few schools they should have instead rolled, and storm through the Big East and into March on a hot streak.
Even with that known, Pitino has managed to strike fear into fans before the New Year…again.
The Cardinals sit at 5-2 with losses to UNLV and Charlotte. Meetings against in-state foes Western Kentucky and No. 4 Kentucky loom within the next month, and Louisville jumps right into conference play with a showdown against No. 3 Villanova.
The Cardinals have recovered in the past, but for many reasons, this year could be different.
1. Terrence Williams, Earl Clark still not replaced
Louisville lost a pair of NBA Draft lottery picks in Terrence Williams and Earl Clark, and Pitino has yet to find a solution at the three and four spots this season.
Sophomores Jared Swopshire and Kyle Kuric haven’t been the answer so far—either statistically or defensively—and sophomore Terrence Jennings (a potential power forward) hasn’t received the playing time anticipated after he broke out in Big East Conference play at the end of last season.
Freshman Rakeem Buckles reached double figures in Louisville’s first loss to UNLV and scored seven against Charlotte, and senior Reggie Delk scored 20 in the Cardinals’ season opener against Arkansas.
The scoring potential is there for Louisville to key another turnaround, but the consistency isn’t.
2. Charlotte loss was uncharacteristic
The Cardinals are known to give a few away in November and December, but not on their home court—and not by more than 20 points. Charlotte knocked off Louisville 87-65 last Saturday in a game that was never close, handing Pitino his worst home loss at Louisville.
The only thing that can be taken from a loss to the 49ers is that they’re 7-1 with a loss to Duke. Like the Cardinals’ non-conference losses last season—against Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV—Charlotte has a shot at making the NCAA Tournament in a weak Conference USA.
3. The injury bug is back
It was absent throughout Louisville’s Big East Conference-winning season in 2008-2009. Now, the injury bug is back.
Three guards—senior Jerry Smith, junior Preston Knowles, and freshman Peyton Siva—sat out against Charlotte, propelling the 49ers to 54 percent field goal shooting and a largest lead of 42 points.
None of the injuries are severe, as Smith and Siva are both on track to be back to the lineup soon. But if it’s a sign of things to come, a serious injury could again haunt Pitino.
4. Samardo Samuels hasn’t progressed
Charlotte made 10-of-24 three-pointers against Louisville without three Cardinals guards in the rotation.
That doesn’t explain how the 49ers out-rebounded Louisville 49-35 with the backcourt at full strength.
Samuels, thought to be NBA-ready out of high school, is all there with his scoring at 16 points per game. However, he’s far from dominant in the paint, reaching double figures in rebounds only twice this season.
Samuels pulled down seven combined rebounds in the Cardinals’ two losses.
5. Off-the-court issues are still looming
There’s an elephant in the room, and it’s not going away.
Pitino mulled over an extortion case last summer and eventually owned up to his transgressions, but the case isn’t finalized, and the worst of road games are still ahead.
How will opposing fans treat Pitino? Will the players notice? Will a closed case still present a distraction for Louisville this season and beyond?
Jennings and Smith also pled guilty on Oct. 19 to one charge of resisting law enforcement, a matter Pitino handled internally. The two didn’t miss a game, but Jennings has played only 82 minutes in seven games this season—another reason why the outlook isn’t promising for another Louisville turnaround.