(Photo – Courier-Journal)
Coming into Monday night’s game vs. Cincinnati, the series between Louisville and the Bearcats was actually tied at 4-4 since former Rick Pitino assistant Mick Cronin took over in 2006-07. That record may be surprising to some, for the Cards have made several appearances in the top 5-10 since then while Cincy has only been ranked at all a handful of times. In fact, they have only made the NCAA tournament twice (the last 2 years) in Cronin’s tenure. Yet, as any fan knows, a rivalry is a rivalry, when two rival teams play one another, rankings and records can be tossed out the window. They have no relevance in those games. Cincinnati has always played the Cards tough, and the Cards had no business overlooking the Bearcats, especially with a Big East tournament double-bye on the line. Right off the bat, it was clear that the Cards were nothing BUT business, and they certainly took care of it as they left the court with a 67-51 victory. It was as impressive as the team has looked all season and is a perfect catalyst into the regular season final: a highly anticipated grudge match vs Notre Dame.
Gorgui Dieng. Rick Pitino announced after the game that Dieng would participate in senior night festivities and would be encouraged to enter the draft. He said he would not sign an agent and would only go if he was a lock for a first-round pick, but allow me to break this lightly: he’s gone. That is, if he keeps playing at the level he is right now. NBA GMs will start paying a little more attention to him as the spotlight grows (i.e. Big East/NCAA Tourney time), and his upside will be impossible to ignore. The past 4 games, Dieng has looked incredible and is no longer only displaying his mid-range game, blocked shots and rebounding ability. He is now putting the ball on the floor and showing he can take it to the hoop with success. His basketball IQ is beyond off-the-charts high and is onluy getting better. He scored 11 points, grabbed 9 rebounds and always seemed to position himself perfect on both sides of the court. His shooting ability has gone from average to a dangerous weapon. Make no mistake about it. Barring a huge, head-scratching set back in production, Gorgui Dieng will enter the NBA draft and will be a steal for one lucky NBA GM. Time to fight back tears, reminisce about the good times, and pay very deserving respect to U of L’s center who was once just an unknown backup plan to Fab Melo.
Luke Hancock. Including Monday’s game vs. Cincinnati, in the last 5 games, Hancock is shooting 68% from the field (15-22), 65% from three (11-17), & is averaging 9 points per game in just 19.2 minutes per game. It seems like a LONG time since he seemed like another overhyped Pitino project, now, doesn’t it? To say Hancock has been one of the team’s most valuable players in that span is an understatement. He was arguably the biggest reason for winning the Syracuse game and was once again on point against Cincinnati. He hit 2 big threes and delivered the highlight of the game on a pretty alley-oop pass to Chane Behanan. He also hit a nice pull-up one handed floater as he finished with 8 points. He is finding his rhythm and his scoring is coming full circle. Whether fans wanted to believe it or not back in November, Luke Hancock is going to have a major impact on Louisville’s championship hopes. If he keeps playing like he is, that impact is going to have many Louisville fans smiling.
Kevin Ware. While he is not putting up the stats that are going to get him any kind of awards, think about this stat line for a minute. In the last 9 games (every game since his suspension), Ware has 13 steals. By comparison, Russ Smith and Peyton Siva in that same time span have 16 steals of piece. During the 9-game span, Siva is averaging 32.2 minutes per game while Smith is averaging 33.4 minutes per game. Ware? He is playing only 19.7 minutes per game. So while he is playing 13-14 minutes less than Siva and Smith, he is only trailing them in steals by 3 during that time frame. The kid is making an impact. He is making an impact and his offense game is developing quick. Along with his usual defensive ferocity, he also had a nice driving finish from the top of the key and an impressive breakaway dunk after a steal. He is still a work in progress, but his transformation from pre-suspension Kevin Ware to post-suspension Kevin Ware may be something the Cards look back on as something that helped get their season back on track. He still has work to do, but he has proven he is willing to do it. Assuming he continues to put in the time, NBA GMs this time next season will be drooling.
VanTrezl. The two backup big men were once again beasts in the paint as they both played with 110% effort, passion and did not shy away from a little contact. Both SVT and the Man With the Silent L had excellent spurts on both sides of the court and combined for 6 points and 10 rebounds off the bench. Harrell accounted for 6 of those rebounds in just 14 minutes, as he attempted to remind Chane Behanan that he, too, can play in the paint need be. SVT had some uncharacteristic savvy moves on offense and grabbed some strong rebounds, but the big story is that he will NOT participate in senior night. That is odd, being that he is…you know…a SENIOR. This is definitely a story to keep your eye on as the week progresses.
Rick Pitino. The Godfather earned his 300th Louisville victory as he took down his former pupil and thanked the crowd afterward. The message he gave the fans was humble and thoughtful. His exact words were, “There’s nowhere, other than heaven, I’d rather spend 300 wins with than with you people.” Coach Pitino has always been someone who has received mixed reviews, even with Louisville fans. At times he can appear smug and selfish and Sypher-gate did not do any favors to his public image. His very public objections to Louisville leaving the Big East amid conference realignment certainly ignited fury in the fanbase. Yet, while he certainly has his faults, he is someone who is never anything but polite and appreciative to Louisville fans and their families. He is very involved in philanthropy and truly cares about his players on a personal level. He works them hard, but it is as clear as day that it is more important to him that these players become successful and mature men off the court as opposed to merely on the court. He is the type of guy that can take in unheralded no-name recruits like Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng and develop them into NBA prospects, but the mutual respect he has for his players. If you have not already, take a look at this blog post by Eric Crawford and read about the relationship between the coach and Dieng. The man truly appreciates the guys around him. Then of course there is the fact that he has taken Louisville, a program he came to in desperate need of immediate help, to 2 Final Fours, 4 Elite Eights, and has led them to the first #1 ranking in school history. Not too shabby, either. He may be considered a bit of an anti-hero in these parts, but it is tough to picture where this program would be had he not ended up here. Congrats on the milestone, Coach, and here’s hoping for many more to come.
Chane Behanan. For the first time in his career, Chane Behanan finished with 0 rebounds. There is no excuse for a guy with his size and his ability to go up against such a mediocre frontcourt and finish with not one rebound. He was the only Cardinal that without a doubt had a bad game. I do not want to jump to the conclusion that it was lack of effort, because he did lead the team with 4 steals, but something has to give with him. He is too talented to end up with a goose egg in the rebounding category. He has it in him to be a double-double threat every game, but he just does not always play with that mentality. There are games when he looks like an NBA lottery pick, and there are other games where he looks like he could end up riding the bench on a professional team in Turkey. He can be as good as he wants to be, and he can literally take himself as far as he wants to go. He just needs to figure out a way to bring his A game every time he steps on the court. Even his B game is better than most power forwards’ A game.
Russ Smith. Russ did not have a bad game, and he did lead the Cards in scoring with 18 points, but he did take a bit of a step back in regards to playing team ball. We have come to expect Russ to make his share of ridiculous plays, but he has cut down on them quite a bit recently. Against Cincinnati, he went back to forcing it and trying to take it himself too often. It is one thing to try and finish a fast break, but there were times when he was just taking his teammates out of the game. He has proven that he can be one of, if not THE, best passers on the team and he needs to utilize that skill a lot more often than he did Monday night.
Mick Cronin. Did it seem like Louisville was running their offense very smoothly for most of the game? Almost eerily smoothly? And did it seem like guys were getting through the lane much easier than usual? Yeah…that is because for whatever reason, Mick Cronin decided it would be a good idea to play man against the Cards. For those who have not noticed, Louisville has a bit of trouble running a half court offense against a tough zone D. Yet, Cronin’s game plan was to play the Cards man? As Seth Davis might say, that is not how you get Capone. Siva and Smith just took full advantage of that defense and used their speed to get easy baskets off the dribble. I like Cronin, and I am sure Rick appreciates that game plan, but playing man D vs Louisville is not exactly the best way to improve your NCAA tournament resume.
Officiating. Not sure exactly what is going on this week, but during both the Syracuse and Cincinnati games, Louisville has been the victim of just terrible calls. First, there was the bogus charge call on Luke Hancock vs. Syracuse that forced Pitino to take off his jacket and throw it into Wayne Blackshear’s lap (which got a nice private laugh from Wayne and Zach Price). Against Cincy, there was the play when Peyton Siva flat out got SHOVED going up for a layup and he almost crashed into the rim. He could have been seriously hurt, as Jay Bilas and the Big Monday crew clearly pointed out, and insanely, there was no whistle. There were other incidents of awful no-calls as well, like when Montrezl was getting tackled under the basket in the second half or several hacks on Russ Smith during drives. There are going to be a lot of pleasant memories about the Big East for Louisville. The basketball officiating will not be one of them.
Overall, this has the most comfortable Louisville has looked playing this year. Again, credit a bit of that to Mick Cronin for playing so much man-to-man, but it is more than that. This team just looks like they are on the same page for the first time all year (or at least since the Bahamas). Hancock and Ware continue to come around, Gorgui is playing like an NBA center, Russ is becoming more of a team player, and Peyton Siva is showing leadership. Sure, it would be nice to see Behanan and Blackshear (the latter who did play better than he did against Syracuse) play better on a more consistent basis, but both are capable of breaking out on any given night. Despite all the bumps in the road and questionable games the Cards have had this season, it appears that the guys are rounding into postseason form just in time. As Louisville goes for its 7th win in a row vs. Notre Dame Saturday (a team they obviously cannot look past), they look fully prepared to go on a March run.