This time last month, few could have imagined that this Louisville basketball team would ever find themselves in a must-win situation this season before March. Yet, after three straight upset losses, the Cards found themselves exactly in that position as they were set to take on Pittsburgh at home Monday night. The must-win situation soon became an unexpected uphill battle, as it was announced that both starting forward Wayne Blackshear and key bench player Kevin Ware would miss the game, Blackshear with an injury and Ware with a suspension. Despite being underhanded, though, the 12th ranked Cards came out, played good team basketball and made clutch free throws down the stretch to snap a three-game losing skid. It was not pretty, but it really does not matter. This team just needed a win to get back on track and that is what they got.
Russ Smith. There he is. After a bad Villanova game and subpar performance v. Georgetown, Russ got back to doing what he does best: getting buckets. It has seemed those two games, Russ was playing completely out of his comfort zone. Whether it was due to Pitino’s gameplan or he was simply having off-nights is unclear, but Russ is not the type of guy that can or should be held back from playing his game. It may not always be what Pitino wants to see, or what fans want to see at times for that matter, but Russ is not the type of player who can be handcuffed to a certain style of play. He plays his game, and he plays it well. Last season, it was kind of a take-the-good-with-the-bad situation, but this season, there has been far more good than bad. Against Pitt, there was very little bad. He scored 20 points and did it only taking 15 shots. Last year he would put up that kind of a stat, but would do it shooting about 25 shots. He still forces plays now and again, but not nearly as much as he once did. Therefore, let the young man play his game. He also played his usual style of scrappy defense and was tied for second on the team in rebounds with 5. Russ is the type of player that can both will his team to a win as well as single-handedly take them out of a game. This season, he has done far more of the former, as was on display last night.
Gorgui Dieng. That may have just been the best Gorgui has played this season. The big man got back into a groove at home as he finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 blocks. His stat line of 16 points and 14 boards may appear better at first, but he was only 4 of 10 from the floor that game. He was 5 of 7 against Pittsburgh, but his scoring was not why he was so impressive. It was his passing ability from the elbow and in the paint. It was on another level. He did not even seem like he was looking where he was passing the ball. It was just pure instinct. He was so in tune with where he was on the court, he could deliver the ball without hesitation and with pure confidence. There are a lot of 6-11 players in the NBA. There are not a lot of big men with that kind of passing ability. It sets him apart and if he continues to utilize it, he will be putting this team in very good shape.
Montrezl Harrell. Simply put, the freshman power forward needs more minutes. He finished the game with 8 points and 5 rebounds in only 11 minutes of playing time. He played just about 1/3 of the minutes that Chane Behanan and grabbed the same amount of rebounds and scored only 4 less points. He is still a bit raw in a few areas of the game, particularly on defense, but he plays with passion and intensity every second he is on the court. He was playing last night like he was sending a message to Behanan.
Peyton Siva. 2 points? Eh. 10 assists? Louisville will take it. He definitely had an off shooting night, and both of his three-point attempts were horribly off. He was leaning forward and to the side on the first, and on the second, he pulled up as he was leading a fast break, clearly throwing him off his balance. That is not his strong suit when it comes to shooting. He is excellent when catching a pass, stepping up and going straight up and down. He was not doing that v. Pitt. The shooting does not concern me at all, though. I am sure NBA scouts did not love it, but off nights happen. His 10 assists did more than enough to make up for a bad shooting night. Now, it has to be addressed that Pitt inexplicably left guys like Behanan and Dieng unguarded in the paint multiple times, but regardless of the poor defense, Siva had the Pitt D in the palm of his hand as he handled the ball and found open teammates. No one expected him to be a scorer this year, but rather a facilitator on offense as he was in March of last year. He has been that most of the year and was certainly that v. Pitt.
Rick Pitino. While he is partly to blame for the three-game skid, he is equally due praise for getting the team back on track v. Pitt. The offensive sets with Gorgui passing from the elbow completely baffled Pitt and was beautifully drawn up by the coach. Without one of his best players in Blackshear and a key bench player in Ware, Pitino was able to adjust, despite a limited roster, and convince his team they were still capable of beating a very solid Pitt team. When Tim Henderson and Dark Slime are getting minutes, it is pretty scary in a close game. No matter. The team came to play, and he should be credited for having them ready. Their confidence is clearly still a bit shot after losing three straight, and while they are still not at the level they were at a month ago, the team came together for a much needed win. It is clear that he had the team work on a certain area of the game that killed them the previous two games, particularly v. Villanova…
Clutch free throw shooting. While Chane did not have his best game, his free throws at the end of the game were gigantic. The team’s free throw shooting looked much improved, and even Montrezl Harrell hit a pair. It was a bit concerning after the Villanova game, but it appears the free throw shooting in the second half would suggest that it may have just been a funk.
Luke Hancock. While he did not play terrible, as he had three steals, it was as perfect of an opportunity as any to prove himself, as he was able to start in the absence of and get the minutes of Wayne Blackshear. He is without a doubt the most criticized player amongst the fans, as he has been given the same Pitino kiss of death that the coach gave to Mike Marra. When he praises a somewhat unheralded incoming player so much, it gets fans excited. When said player does not deliver, it gets them frustrated. Hancock was in prime position to shut up the doubters, and instead, he played most of the game in foul trouble, forcing the team to go with Tim Henderson for a good portion of the game. Nothing against Hendo, but he does not exactly give the Cards the best chance to win, and he appeared overmatched most of the time he was on the court. Hancock is not generally the type of player who gets himself in foul trouble, and with Blackshear reportedly returning for the Marquette game, his timing could have been better.
Blocking out. I mean, seriously, it is one of the basic fundamentals of the game. Pitt scored 25 of their 61 points on second half chances, per WDRB’s Eric Crawford, and it is shocking it was only 25 with the way the frontcourt was protecting the paint on defense. Behanan, Dieng and Harrell all continuously tried to use their athleticsm to outrebound the opposition. That rarely works in the Big East, especially when a 7-0 athlete like Steven Adams is on the other team. Despite the second half chances Pitt was getting, the frontcourt never adjusted. They were either ignoring Pitino or he was not addressing it, but all three are too good to not block out on defense. It arguably was the reason the team was beat by Georgetown and made the game more of a contest than it could have been v. Pitt.
Perimeter defense. Not quite as bad as not blocking out, but concerning was the perimeter D. This team is stifling in the press and in transition D, but Siva and Smith take some dangerous chances once the offense is set up. It frees up space for open threes, which Pitt took full advantage of.
Pat Forde’s shirt. Seriously, look below at Brent’s piece and think who would even sell that. It looks like something a Hare Krishna recruiter at an airport would wear on his off day. I love ya, Pat, but come on, man…you’re better than that.
Kevin Ware. I have no clue what is going on with Ware or why he is suspended, but he and Pitino are not on the same page. I am not sure if it is something going on off the court or he is just butting heads with Pitino during practices or behind closed doors, but this is the second time he has been suspended this season. That is two too many times. In the offseason, we heard Pitino rave about how good Ware looked and how he was at times the best player in practices. It reasonably could have been expected that he and not Russ would be the starting two-guard. For someone Pitino spoke so highly of, he has lived up to none of it thus far. His talent and athleticism is obvious, and he just cannot put it together on the court. Pitino said it would be a while before we saw him again. He said similar things about Derrick Caracter, but always eventually let him off the hook. Pitino has definitely changed his approach a bit since then, and it is unlikely that he will play the same game with Ware. Ware has just not found his groove at Louisville just yet. He came in late after not qualifying for the first part of his freshman season and had to learn on the fly. That is not easy to do under Rick Pitino. His recruitment was an odd one, anyway, as he first committed to Tennessee, then opened back up once Bruce Pearl was canned. He was supposedly a Louisville lean until Brandon Bender and Central Florida got involved, and as he did to many kids, he tried to screw up Ware’s life. He ended up committing to UCF until they were hit with NCAA violations, then popped for Louisville. He has unfortunately just not figured it out yet and at times seems completely out of his comfort zone.With three excellent guards coming in next season and the possibility of Russ returning for another year, minutes in the backcourt will be tough to come by, and he appears to be deep in Pitino’s doghouse. He may not appear in a Cardinal uniform again this season, and if he does not, will he even stick around? Would Pitino let him? It is an unfortunate storyline for a team with such high hopes. Let’s just hope for the best for all involved.
It was ugly. It was at times sloppy. Yet, the ball is rolling again for Louisville. After the team crumbled under their anointed #1 ranking, they have been in a bit of a downward spiral. A month ago, a win like this would have fans rolling their eyes and causing water cooler talk the next morning about how the team had an off night. Now, however, fans can collectively breathe a sigh of relief that the three-game losing streak nightmare is over. The team just needed a win, and even an ugly one like that is a huge step in the right direction. They are still far where they can and should eventually be, but it is a positive sign the team could gut out this win against a solid Pittsburgh team. Now, on to Marquette, who should provide an even bigger challenge for the Cards.