Rick Pitino has called this a bridge season for Louisville, a seemingly reasonable statement considering his team didn’t return any of its top three scorers.
So far, the No. 20 Cardinals seem to be on an accelerated learning curve.
Louisville looks to continue its best start in 14 years Tuesday night against visiting Drexel, which hopes the nation’s top-scoring bench player can help break down the Cardinals’ stellar defense.
Pitino’s team lost Samardo Samuels, Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith, a trio that averaged 36.7 points - nearly half of the Cardinals’ total - in a 2009-10 season that ended with a first-round NCAA tournament exit. Forward Jared Swopshire, the team’s fourth-leading scorer in 2009-10, likely won’t return until January because of a groin injury.
Louisville (8-0) began the season with a 15-point win over then-No. 16 Butler, then feasted on six overmatched opponents, a string of results that didn’t exactly get Pitino to soften his stance that his team was reloading.
He did Saturday. Down five at halftime to then-No. 20 UNLV, the Cardinals came back behind Preston Knowles’ 20 second-half points to win 77-69.
“The future can be this year,” Pitino said.
Louisville hasn’t won nine straight to begin a season since starting 10-0 in 1996-97.
If Knowles keeps playing like he did in the final 20 minutes Saturday, the Cardinals might be able to finish much higher than eighth in the Big East, where they were predicted to finish in the preseason. Knowles missed both of his shots in eight foul-plagued minutes in the first half.
“He doesn’t think,” Pitino said of Knowles’ attitude after a few misses. “Preston doesn’t think at all and shooters can’t think. You have to take open shots and drive when you are covered.”
Drexel’s Chris Fouch certainly doesn’t seem to have an issue getting shots off. Fouch isn’t in coach Bruiser Flint’s starting five, but he’s performing like a star.
The sophomore is the nation’s leading bench scorer at 22.4 points per game, and he has the Dragons (6-1) off to their best start in Flint’s nine-year tenure.
Fouch had 27 points, six in overtime, as Drexel held off Rider 71-67 on Saturday.
Fouch is shooting 45.0 percent overall and 43.1 from 3-point range, but he might have a harder time getting good looks against Louisville. The Cardinals are holding opponents to 35.7 percent shooting - tied with Syracuse for the nation’s fourth-stingiest mark - and they’re forcing 18.8 turnover per game, best in the Big East.
Drexel, though, might be able to hang with Louisville even if Fouch’s shots aren’t falling. The Dragons are holding their opponents to 23.3 percent shooting from 3-point range, second in the nation. The Cardinals take 26.9 3s per game, fourth-most in the country.
Drexel should also be able to hold its own underneath. The Dragons’ plus-13.4 rebounding edge per game is second nationally behind Pittsburgh.
This is the second meeting between Louisville and Drexel, and the first should bring back excellent memories for Cardinals fans. Louisville won 93-73 in the first round of the 1986 NCAA tournament on its way to winning the national championship.