This is my seventh season covering Louisville basketball, and this season hopefully represents a real inflection point as Louisville rebounds from 4 years away from national contention. While the abundance of returning contributors has inflated expectations, there's some uncertainty given the shaky end to last season. As such, there are some significant areas of uncertainty this season. Before the season tips off, I'll share some of the key "if"s and "we'll see"s that interest me about the Cards.
Before I start, I want to explain how I approach early season games. My analysis depends on play by play data, and there's not really enough of it early in the season to be as definitive as I'd like. Until we get to early December or so, I'll be offering up observations on interesting trends. As we get into December, I'll be better able to determine what's real and what isn't. With that said, let me share some of what I'll be watching for.
We'll see if Nwora and Sutton can avoid late game shooting slumps...
Louisville had troubles late in games last year, and much of it can be traced back to the 2 leading returning scorers. For the season, both players were solid shooters; Nwora had an effective FG% of 53% and Sutton was at 52%. During the last 10 minutes of games, however, things slipped. Nwora's eFG% dropped to 44%, and he hit just 29% of threes. Sutton's eFG% also dropped to 44%, as he hit just 32% of his threes. To make things worse, the pair took more of UofL's shots as they were becoming less accurate. It's unclear if they suffered from fatigue (they each played over 31 mpg) or if the defensive schemes they faced got tougher, but two of UofL's offensive focal points really struggled to score late in games last season.
If Darius Perry gets a chance to be a full-time point guard, he might be the answer for UofL....
During this offseason, I wrote the following about Darius Perry's play last year:
Perry had dramatically different impacts on UofL, depending on whether he played alongside Cunningham or not. When playing alongside Cunningham, Perry was largely an ineffective shooting guard:
- He assisted on 13% of his teammates' shots
- 64% of his shots were three pointers
- He rarely drew free throws, attempting 1 free throw for every 4 field goals
This stats profile is basically that of a catch-and-shoot player with limited playmaking ability; his closest historical comps are players like Wayne Blackshear or Chris Smith. Nobody was clamoring for those players to fill in at point guard, to say the least.
When Perry played without Cunningham, however, he turned into a different player:
- He assisted on 22% of his teammates shots
- 40% of his shots were three pointers
- He drew 2 free throws for every 5 field goals
Perry also turned the ball over less frequently despite taking on more playmaking responsibility. His statistical profile in these situations was actually very similar to Cunningham's predecessor at point guard, Quentin Snider.
Perry didn't exactly set the world on fire during the Bellarmine exhibition, but he quietly was effective in the limited time he got to play point guard last season. Given that this is UofL's only real hole in the lineup, it will give the Cards' national title hopes a huge boost if he can be a competent replacement for Christen Cunningham.
We'll see if UofL can find their best lineup, and play them when it matters most...
One key factor in Louisville's strong start to ACC play last season was the emergence of a standout lineup. Prior to the ACC opener against Miami, the lineup of Cunningham/Fore/Sutton/Nwora/Williams had played 13 total possessions. Against Miami, they posted a +13 in 16 possessions. The next game, they were inserted as the starting lineups, and this group responded in a major way. They were +88 in 325 possessions for the rest of the season, playing more than twice as often as any other Cardinals lineup. They were even +12 in 55 possessions in the losses to Duke and Virginia. This makes it all the more odd that UofL's coaching staff seemed to lose all faith in this group at the end of games. While this group played more than twice as much as any other lineup in ACC play, they were only the 4th most played lineup during the last 10 minutes of games. This isn't skewed by blowout wins or losses, either; in the last 10 minutes of games within 10 points, this lineup also played the 4th most of any UofL lineup. While there can be meaningful distinctions between "starting" and "closing" lineups, it is very odd to see a starting lineup dominate and not be used to close games. I'm very interested to see how the coaching staff manages rotations this year as they fit some key new pieces around established veterans.
Whether or not each of these is answered positively for UofL can determine if they return to national title contention this season or if they find themselves prone to some of the same types of letdowns as last year. It was clear last season that UofL had the potential to contend with anyone in the country; this season the question will be if they can maintain that for a full season. Now that the season is about to tip off, we're going to find out very soon, and I for one can't wait to watch.