Commentary

Should we adjust outlook for UL, Butler?

Originally Published: November 16, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Early-season rankings are often an exercise in erroneous assumption.

Cases in point this early college basketball season: Butler and Louisville.

The Bulldogs, coming off a national-darling run that ended in a two-point loss to Duke in the title game, were ranked 16th in the AP poll and 18th in the ESPN/USA Today poll this week.

The Cardinals, coming off an inglorious first-round exit in the NCAA tournament and missing all five starters from last season's inconsistent team, were nowhere to be found in the rankings. And I do mean nowhere. Forty-nine teams received votes in the AP and coaches polls. Louisville was not one of them.

[+] EnlargeElisha Justice and Matt Howard
Mark Zerof/US PresswireElisha Justice and the Cards ran right through Butler on Tuesday.

Northwestern? Yes. Portland? Yes. Colorado? Yes.

Louisville? No.

But after a Yum!my debut in their opulent new arena Tuesday night, that complete absence from the national radar will change for the Cards. And after a Yuck!y performance wearing a burdensome bull's-eye, the ranking also will change for the Bulldogs.

The score was Louisville 88, Butler 73. And for much of the game, it wasn't that close. Louisville never trailed, led by as many as 24 early in the second half and maintained a double-digit lead for the final 24 minutes, 50 seconds.

It was Butler's largest margin of defeat since the 2006 Horizon League championship game. And it was the most points the tempo-master Bulldogs have allowed in regulation since 1999.

So we learned something at the Yum! Center. There is no reason to overreact to a single November outcome -- Butler will be a good team over the long haul, and Duke does not need to look over its shoulder at the Cardinals -- but there is reason to adjust the outlook.

"They're really good," Butler coach Brad Stevens said of the Cardinals. "Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. All the Big East predictions were probably wrong, based on what I've seen."

The Big East predictions placed Louisville an uncharacteristic 10th in the 16-team league. Looking at the scarce returning talent -- nobody in uniform Tuesday averaged more than 7.2 points per game last season -- that didn't seem out of line.

But it didn't take into account Rick Pitino's penchant for developing players and injecting them with confidence. This looks like something of a throwback to Pitino's early teams at both Kentucky and Louisville, when the object was to even the playing field with fast pace and frantic hustle -- something he's gotten away from in recent years.

For one night, at least, forward Rakeem Buckles was a poor man's Earl Clark. A guy who averaged 3.8 points and 3.4 rebounds as a freshman hung 17 and 11 on Butler -- and said afterward, yes, Pitino had shown him tapes of Clark's game to emulate.

Guard Mike Marra averaged 3.1 points and 1.1 rebounds last season. On Tuesday night, he had 11 points, five rebounds and five assists in his first career start.

Big man Stephan Van Treese is improved. After scoring a total of eight points as a freshman, he had five against the Bulldogs.

Point guard Peyton Siva was collared by fouls, but his nine points and three assists in 15 minutes hinted at a guy who will be one of the cornerstones of this team.

Louisville survived Siva's long absences from the game largely because of the play of backup point guard Elisha Justice, who just might come to symbolize this Cardinals team. He's a freshman walk-on from the Appalachian hills of Eastern Kentucky, all of 5-foot-10, receiving scholarship offers from the likes of Marshall, Eastern Kentucky and Navy. But Justice also was the state's Mr. Basketball and led his small school, Shelby Valley, to a Cinderella state title.

In his first college game, Justice contributed 12 points, six rebounds and an unflinching desire to control the ball in the game's latter stages.

"It is amazing that he didn't want anyone else to handle the ball but him," Pitino said. "That speaks volumes of his guts and heart."

They're really good. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. All the Big East predictions were probably wrong, based on what I've seen.

-- Brad Stevens on Louisville

Guts and heart will have to be considerable parts of Louisville's equation this season, because the talent is far from flush. But the locker room chemistry also appears to be significantly better than last season.

"I definitely think there is less ego," said center Terrence Jennings, who contributed 13 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots. "We're more of a family. We believe in each other."

Butler must believe in itself as well, as opposed to coming out of this game with excessive doubts. There is no reason to panic -- but there is plenty to work on.

"I think we've got a lot of room to get better," Stevens said. "It's Nov. 16th, and if we hang our heads we won't get better and if we chalk it up as just antoher game we're not going to get better. … I mean, we didn't set the world on fire last November."

After a loss to UAB last Dec. 22, Butler was 8-4. It wouldn't lose again until the NCAA championship game.

There should be similar strides this season, but don't expect a repeat of that run.

Butler clearly misses top-10 NBA draft pick Gordon Hayward even more than anticipated. For the brief period when this was a competitive game, it was splendid guard Shelvin Mack against everyone in red and white. And that wasn't a fair fight.

For seemingly the one millionth time in his career, Butler post man Matt Howard was saddled with early foul trouble. Stevens said Howard had cut down his hacking in practice and preseason games, but he relapsed against the big and athletic Cardinals. Without the Hayward security blanket, it's essential that Howard stays on the floor for more than the 22 minutes he logged in this game.

"It was really disappointing that that happened," Stevens said.

The lack of competitiveness from Butler was disappointing. And surprising.

Every bit as surprising as the dominance by Louisville.

So much for preseason appraisals.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.