Cards Roll After Slow Start: Notes and ObservationsPosted by Will Tucker on November 11th, 2012
Will Tucker is an RTC correspondent and a Big East microsite writer. He can be found on Twitter @blrdswag.
The Louisville Cardinals officially kicked off their season this afternoon with a decisive victory over Steve Masiello’s shorthanded Manhattan team. There were several intriguing narratives heading into today’s game, in which Rick Pitino’s squad sought to validate their lofty preseason ranking and answer some lingering questions about their player rotation and offense. Here are a handful of the most compelling storylines and some conclusions we can draw from the Manhattan game:
- Manhattan’s odds of pulling off an upset in Louisville took a major blow hours before tip off, when it was revealed that star senior George Beamon (19 PPG) would sit out today with an ankle injury. This made it even more difficult to gauge the Cardinals. The overwhelmed Jaspers turned it over 27 times under the duress of Louisville’s athletic full-court press –– the most Louisville has forced since 2004. Masiello admitted after the game that even had Beamon played and everything had gone right for them, his team would have still lost by a comfortable margin.
- The most anticipated competition heading into the season was at the power forward position, where embattled sophomore Chane Behanan returned today after serving a suspension for both of Louisville’s exhibition games. Pitino opted to start promising freshman Montrezl Harrell, who played extremely well in both preseason contests, but both players split minutes and spent much of the first half on the court at the same time after Gorgui Dieng picked up two fouls in the first two minutes. Harrell certainly didn’t appear eager to forfeit his place in the starting lineup, recording six points, four rebounds, a block and a steal, all the while exhibiting the unrelenting motor that recruiting analysts had raved about during his high school career. For his part, Behanan seemed to respond well to the challenge, grabbing a team-high nine rebounds, eight points, and a career-high three steals in 24 minutes. The game didn’t definitely determine the picture at the four spot going forward, but it seems unlikely Behanan, the MVP of last season’s NCAA Tournament West Regional, will tolerate the indignity of being displaced by a freshman for long. That kind of motivation can only be a good thing for Louisville fans.
- Louisville was outrebounded by a Manhattan team without its senior leader and second-leading rebounder. In his post-game press conference, Pitino emphasized that his guards need to carry their weight in terms of rebounding, rather than rely on their big men to clean the glass. Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, Kevin Ware, and Luke Hancock combined for a paltry six of their team’s 33 rebounds. Louisville’s frontcourt didn’t escape criticism either: “When you’ve got legs like Chane Behanan… you can’t be moved [on rebounds],” Pitino said. “Monday, I’m going to show them Ken Faried.” Dieng, who logged only three minutes in the first half after getting in foul trouble, grabbed only two rebounds after returning in the second half.
- After last week’s woeful three-point shooting display, in which the Cards connected on 1-of-18 shots from behind the arc against D-II Bellarmine, Rick Pitino was probably eager to see one or two of his guards quiet some of the criticism about his team’s subpar shooting ability. Unfortunately, that deficiency –– Louisville’s only real glaring weakness –– reared its head again today. The Cards finished 8-30 (26.7%) from beyond the arc, with only Kevin Ware (1-1) hitting more than 25% of his attempts. Pitino’s wing rotation of Wayne Blackshear and Luke Hancock finished a combined 3-14 from three, with Hancock missing his first seven and appearing visibly shaken until he sank one halfway through the second half. Russ Smith connected on 4-of-13, but the streaky shooter can hardly be expected to fill the role left by steady departed sharpshooters Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith. Although Pitino has shrugged off concerns over shooting percentages in past years, he readily acknowledged anxiety over today’s bricks after the game: “They’re all wide open… Luke and Wayne have got to start making those threes. Russ rushes them too much. He’s in too much of a hurry. But everything he does in life is in a hurry.”
- After playing a distracted and indecisive first half in which he turned it over four times, Siva rebounded after halftime with an assertive performance reminiscent of his dominance last March. Siva recorded his second career double-double by tacking on six points and seven assists (to only one turnover) in the second half, in the process appearing capable of slashing to the basket at will against Manhattan’s hapless defenders. His stat line of 10 points and 10 assists was not astonishing, but he certainly passed the eye test. After the game, Pitino flatly stated that Siva is “the best guard in the country,” and it certainly appears this might be the year the senior point man puts it all together for an entire season.
So did today answer the question of whether Louisville looks like an elite top two team? Not really, especially considering their opponent was without its star player. But it’s premature to draw any definitive conclusions from these early games, for any team. Louisville will show what it’s made of when it faces the meat of its non-conference schedule in December. So what do we know? Rick Pitino has some very talented pieces in place, and if they can put it all together by the end of the season the way his teams tend to, they have the horses necessary to make it back to a Final Four. What really stuck out today was the athleticism of Louisville’s guards. Russ Smith, the sinewy beanpole who short-armed a dunk in this past NCAA Tournament, drove that point home in the first half today when he shocked spectators with monster two-handed jam that he almost certainly wouldn’t have attempted a year ago. It’s difficult to remember a recent Louisville backcourt with more straight-line speed than Smith, Siva, and Ware. While outside shooting is still a glaring uncertainty, that athleticism, coupled with the cerebral leadership of Siva and Dieng, the offensive skill of the frontcourt and an unequivocally elite defense should have Louisville fans feeling optimistic at this stage.