Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals spurned an early season trend in their 96-66 win over Arkansas last Wednesday night.
They won an early season game, and they did so without a scare.
Since joining the Big East in 2005, Pitino has noticeably adjusted to the Cardinals’ strenuous conference schedule. Louisville typically disregards its preseason ranking, placing winning on the back burner in favor of instilling team chemistry and lasting stamina.
Last season, Pitino’s strategy peaked.
Louisville started the new year with three losses—to Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV—then reeled off nine straight wins, won the Big East Conference Tournament and solidified itself as the top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
As he always does, Pitino caught some flack for the early blunders. As always, they were forgotten in January, February, and especially March.
It remains to be seen what Pitino’s approach will be this season.
Could the Big East’s expected drop in talent be more reason to push early? Could the higher profiles of non-conference opponents like Western Kentucky, UNLV, and Kentucky be a reason to make an early push?
Or was Louisville’s blowout of Arkansas simply a product of five Razorback suspensions, which left John Pelphrey’s depleted roster full of walk-ons and golfers?
The answer lies somewhere in the middle.
"This team is very good," Pitino said. "We're nowhere near our potential, and it's the best we've ever looked since I've been here in an opening game. My teams are very tough to watch the first few games of the season."
Six Cardinals scored in double figures against Arkansas—two more than last season’s opener against Morehead State. But the biggest contribution of the night came from one of the most unlikely of suspects.
Senior guard Reginald Delk, a Mississippi State transfer, racked up a game high 20 points off the bench in only 22 minutes. Delk’s previous career high was 10 points.
Louisville also got 12 points from senior Edgar Sosa and 10 from sophomore Jared Swopshire. Sosa averaged just over seven points per game last season while seeking a defensive identity. Swopshire averaged just one point.
No matter what crazy lineup Pitino threw at Arkansas, no matter what the substitution pattern was to keep the game close, Delk, Sosa and Swopshire threw it all off with—surprise, surprise—production.
However, Pitino did try his best to make Louisville’s first contest worthwhile. He started Delk and guard Preston Knowles out of the half, and the Razorbacks rallied from 14 down to make is a 48-45 game.
That didn’t last long, as by the time the next media timeout started, Louisville was up 65-48.
The Cardinals went on to blowout the Razorbacks and hold star shooter Rotnei Clarke, fresh off a 51-point performance against Alcorn State, to 16 points. That's with a roster that contains five freshman and five sophomores.
"I think it's just the result of us putting very few things in and getting better at what we put in earlier in the year," Pitino said. "We had to keep it very basic."
Pitino constantly tears his team down, claiming they can’t play defense early in the season.
The fact that he hasn’t yet mentioned the Cardinals’ inabilities may signal the underrated potential of this years squad.
And instead of leaving the early season with some noticeable scars, the Cardinals could be ready to provide Western Kentucky, UNLV, and Kentucky with some non-conference scares.