LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) — Riding a three-game winning streak, Louisville's basketball team is on the move, with a very big qualifier, but we'll get to that later.
For now, we'll dwell on the positives, starting with the Cardinals' first appearance in the Associated Press poll since early in the 2017-18 season. Following last week's victories over Boston College and Georgia Tech UofL (13-5) moved into the poll at No. 23 after spending last week heading the also receiving votes category. They also debuted at No. 24 in the coaches poll and are No. 17 in the NCAA's NET ratings. They have been ranked 625 times in the AP poll, sixth most all-time.
Last year, following Rick Pitino's firing and the hiring of David Padgett as interim coach, Louisville was ranked No. 16 in the AP preseason poll, then 18th, 19th and 17th in subsequent polls before permanently dropping out of the ratings on Dec. 4 after back-to-back losses to Purdue and Seton Hall. UL has now been ranked for 16 seasons in a row and 22 of the last 23. The program has finished in Top-25 in the last poll of the season 11 of the last 13 years.
In another significant development, the Cards find themselves in a six-way tie for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a 4-1 record, joining Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Syracuse going into this week's heavy schedule. Two of those wins have come on the road, same as the Blue Devils, Tar Heels, Orange, and Cavaliers.
Louisville's margin of victory is 21.5 points per game, which leads the ACC, and the Cards also rank high in a number of other categories in league games only, which are the only ones of consequence at this stage of the season.
Offensively, the Cards lead the league in scoring at 83.6 ppg, are fourth in field goal percentage (.476), third in 3-point FG percentage (.362) and first in 3-pointers attempted with 50, or 10 per game. Although coach Chris Mack stresses defense, Louisville isn't as impressive from a statistical standpoint in that phase, ranking eighth in field goal percentage defense at .428 and sixth in scoring defense at 69.0 ppg. Its 3-point defense is fourth (.297). Mack's pack-line defense doesn't emphasize steals, and it shows — Louisville’s 4.40 per game is worse than all but BC and Notre Dame.
"That's where it needs to start with our team first," Mack said, referring to defense after Saturday's 79-51 win at Georgia Tech when they limited the Yellow Jackets to 25.0 percent shooting in the first half. "I like our defense the last three games.
"It starts with individuals. You could have four guys busting their tales, but if one guy doesn't really place a high enough priority on the defensive end, you're going to get beat. Either he was the man that was supposed to help or rotate down to block out, or simply guard the ball. I really feel like, per man that comes into the game or starts a game, we've played with a lot of juice on the defensive end."
Here's where it gets dicey, Louisville has played only one team in the upper tier of the conference and, true enough, was ultra-impressive doing it, demolishing UNC 82-61 in Chapel Hill. But take away the Heels' four ACC wins and the other three victims have a combined record of 4-11.
So it's way too early to predict whether or not the Cards will reside in the upper-echelon of the ACC when the smoke clears in March. But we'll know more before long because five of their next seven games are against ranked teams, beginning with No. 21 NC State (15-3, 3-2) Thursday night in the KFC Yum! Center.
Then, after back-to-back games against Pittsburgh at home and Wake Forest on the road, Louisville will play No. 11 North Carolina, No. 10 Virginia Tech, Florida State and No. 12 Duke within a span of 11 days. The Seminoles, who had risen as high as No. 9 in the AP poll, fell out this week due to consecutive losses to Duke, Pitt, and BC, but are still ranked No. 23 in the coaches poll.
While the Cards have certainly acquited themselves well so far, they are nevertheless exactly where they figured to be record-wise; they just took an unlikely path to get there. Any objective observer looking at Louisville’s early ACC schedule could have confidently predicted 4-1. But the four wins figured to include Pitt, with the single loss to UNC. But the Cards flipped those two, losing at Pitt then dominating the Heels.
Now, if conventional wisdom prevails, Louisville could start its rough stretch against North Carolina at home on Feb. 2 with no worse than a 6-2 record, figuring a potential loss to the Wolfpack and wins against Pitt and Wake Forest — or maybe even 7-1 if the Cards can get past NC State.
The game against the Heels will mark the halfway point of the ACC season and tip off a brutal February featuring six games against ranked teams, half of them on the road, plus a tough trip to Syracuse.
A 4-1 start in their five seasons in the ACC is nothing new for the Cards. They also started 4-1 in 2016 and last season, finishing 12-6 and 9-9, respectively. They were 3-2 at this point in 2015 and 2017, winding up 12-6 in both cases.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.