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Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Saturday, January 7, 2017 at 6:47 PM

It might only be early January, but Rick Pitino’s Louisville basketball team has already experienced its share of ups and downs. The Cardinals enjoyed a strong run in non-conference play, their only loss coming to undefeated Baylor. Louisville beat good teams in Purdue, Kentucky and Indiana. When ACC play began though, the Cards stumbled. They lost to Virginia and Notre Dame before righting the ship earlier today, beating Georgia Tech 65-50 and getting a cover as a (-13) favorite.

So what are we to make of this edition of Louisville basketball? Is this a vintage Pitino national title contender that offers value at a 20-1 price to cut down the nets next April in Phoenix? Or are they going to be a team that teases with their talent and reputation, only to come up small. There are good arguments both ways.

Those that believe in Louisville can always start with the bottom line—the Cardinals are 10-4 ATS so far this year. That’s directly related to their excellence on the defensive end. Pitino has always stressed defense and this year’s team ranked seventh nationally in defensive efficiency even before holding Georgia Tech to 50 points this afternoon.

Teams that can play defense can match up with anyone and the wins over Kentucky, Purdue and Indiana are validation of that. In those three wins, the Cards held the opposition to less than 40 percent shooting from the floor. On the Over/Under line, Louisville has played 12 of 14 games to

But if you’re a Cardinal skeptic, all you have to do is talk about the offense. Louisville ranks 103rd nationally in offensive efficiency. They have a serious problem shooting the three-ball. Donovan Mitchell, Quentin Snider and Deng Adel are the primary three-point shooters and none are higher than 34 percent from behind the arc. Those three players are also the lineup’s only double-digit scorers so you have a situation where the players who take your shots aren’t consistent.

Teams that can’t score eventually hit a ceiling against teams that can’t dominate defensively and the losses to Baylor, Virginia and Notre Dame are validation of that. Baylor shot 53% and Virginia came in at 49 percent. Notre Dame was able to shoot 44 percent—not great, but enough to win when your opponent can’t score.

The contradictions don’t stop with the offense/defense dichotomy. The 20-1 price is nice in this regard—Louisville has three good big men in Jaylen Johnson, Raymond Spalding and Mangok Mathiang, who rebound and when they get the ball, the offensive efficiency goes up. It’s hardly unreasonable to envision Pitino adjusting the offense to focus more on the big men and make Louisville a better threat on both sides of the floor.

But that’s in the realm of the theoretical. In practice, Louisville’s price is on a par with two of the teams they’ve lost to in Baylor and Virginia. It’s an indicator that the Cardinal bettors won’t get any breaks on a game-to-game basis and that makes the slow start to ACC play a bit more concerning.

Watch Louisville carefully this next week, especially in next Saturday’s home game with Duke. That will continue to provide us with the information we need to properly value the Cards, both in individual games and on the futures market.

 

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