In advance of tonight's game against the tonight's game against the Louisville Cardinals at Madison Square Garden, I asked 5 questions to Louisville blogger Card Chronicle on Pitino, Louisville's dominance, and even snuck in a question on Kevin Willard, current Iona coach and former Louisville assistant.
1. Louisville hasn't been dominant, and might be a bubble team. But even with the road losses, the team is positioned to make the NCAA Tournament. What is the state of the Cardinal fandom?
2. Give me a rundown on the roster - ballhandlers/ point guards, wings + shooting guards, forwards and centers. Who has gotten better since the last time St. John's saw the team? Who's been worse?
Well it's a lot better than it was this time ten days ago. U of L fans were certainly disappointed with the way the non-conference season played out, but weren't as irate as most fan bases faced with similar situations would be since Louisville has underachieved early in the season the past couple of years and the Cardinals were playing without a couple of key players at the time.
The losses in the Big East have been difficult to stomach, but the majority of the fan anger or frustration has been directed at the officials and not the Louisville players or coaching staff.
With the exception of a blowout loss to Charlotte, U of L has been a position to win every game it's played, and that includes three tilts against teams ranked in the top five (Villanova, Kentucky, West Virginia). The pieces for a successful (for this group) season are still in place, and I think the fan base is more hopeful than fearful at this point.
All right, let's take it from the top:
Edgar Sosa - The New York native's up-and-down career at Louisville has been pretty well documented. He's stated before that he doesn't particularly care for St. John's, and hung a season-high 26 on the Johnnies earlier this year.
Jerry Smith - Louisville's best outside shooter for the past three years, Smith has struggled mightily during his senior season. He's starting to come around however, hitting double-figures in each of the past two games and knocking down five of his last nine three-point attempts.
Preston Knowles - This is Louisville's best on-ball defender. He's not a great ballhandler but he's not afraid to hoist a shot from anywhere on the floor. He's still recovering from a stomach bug that kept him off the floor for much of the Rutgers game.
Peyton Siva - A McDonald's All-American who will become one of the best point guards in the conference once Sosa graduates. He's been shooting the ball very well over the past couple of weeks.
Samardo Samuels - Has stepped up his game immensely since the first meeting with the Red Storm. Samuels has hit double figures in scoring in six of Louisville's past seven games and has blocked 13 shots over that same span.
Reggie Delk - Statistically, he's U of L's best three-point shooter and was on a particularly hot scoring streak before being shut out against Rutgers. When the Cards are at their best, Delk is acting as the glue guy.
Jared Swopshire - Swop will be returning to the starting lineup tonight after a five-game hiatus. He's very skilled and can hit the outside shot with some consistency, but his lean frame leaves him susceptible to being bullied in the paint.
Terrence Jennings - The man who Swopshire will be replacing in the starting five. Jennings' size and athleticism make his value immense, but he's struggled to adjust to the four spot defensively and Pitino has continually criticized his ability to absorb scouting reports. He and Samuels will share the floor for spells, but more times than not they'll be checking in for one another.
3. While some of this perception might be because the players split time fairly evenly, it seems like the Cardinals don't have an emerging star, a go-to guy besides Samardo Samuels. Are the new players (freshmen and sophomores) not living up to their rankings and reputations?
With the exception of Peyton Siva - who was a McDonald's All-American - this year's freshman class was not actually that highly regarded. Siva, Rakeem Buckles and Mike Marra all have tremendous attitudes and the potential to be great players down the road, but this simply isn't their time.
As for the sophomores, I think everyone expected Terrence Jennings to take more of a step forward than he has, but he apparently did not put in the time during the offseason that he needed to for that to occur. Swopshire is continuing to improve, but he's still nowhere near achieving the status of "go-to-guy."
4. Last summer Rick Pitino was in the news, and everyone knows why... what's the feeling on the coach these days? Does his impropriety pop up in conversation about the team? Has it affected the fans, the team, or the school in any way?
Interesting you should ask, given all the hub-ub about his reported interest in the Nets job this morning.
I think the impact of the scandal has affected things far less than everyone thought it would when the story originally broke. I stated my concern before the season that if the team started to lose games, everyone in the country would start writing stories about how Pitino had hurt the program, etc. Well, Louisville's already lost eight times and the focus has primarily remained on the team's floor play.
Pitino has been forgiven and handed the benefit of the doubt by the majority of the fan base, although there is certainly a faction that wouldn't care to see him head elsewhere.
5. Before the last meeting, Rick Pitino spent a minute talking about how the league didn't need St. John's to be good. Do you think this is true? Is there benefit to having a strong St. John's in the league as it's currently constituted (obviously, the pre-Louisville Big East would want St. John's to be a marquee program)?
This is a difficult question for me to answer since (no offense) St. John's has not been very good since Louisville made the move to the Big East. The conference has received as much praise and attention over the past couple of seasons as I can ever remember, so I guess I would have to side with Pitino and say that the league doesn't really need a strong Red Storm team to thrive.
(Bonus question): Do you have any thoughts about Kevin Willard as a head coach - say, in the Big East at a New York or New Jersey school? Do you know anything that would cause you to say "he's ready' or "he's not ready?"
I love Kevin Willard and think he's going to be an extremely successful major college coach in a few years.
He inherited a rough situation at Iona and at the moment he has the Gaels alone in second place in the MAAC standings. Siena should come back to Earth a bit next year and leave the door open for Willard to claim a conference title and make his debut in the NCAA Tournament. If he can make that happen in four years, then I'd say he's absolutely ready for a bigger stage.