PROVIDENCE, R.I. – When Louisville recently ascended all the way to number 4 in the polls, there was a general feeling that the Cardinals weren’t quite that good. The feeling was that they got there by default, as they kept winning while other teams that had been ahead of them lost, and not enough teams played well enough for voters to leapfrog them over the Cardinals. If it had not already become apparent that the feeling about this team was correct, Tuesday night’s 90-59 thumping at Providence surely drove that home.
The game wasn’t an absolute indicator of how good the team is, but the Cardinals’ fourth loss in five games – granted, not exactly coming against Division III teams – is concerning, although head coach Rick Pitino summed the game itself up quite succinctly: “We had one of those nights.”
The first half was bad enough, as Louisville shot just over 30 percent and went into the locker room down 43-25. In the second half, it went from very bad to worse quickly for Louisville. Peyton Siva picked up two quick fouls and had to head to the bench with four fouls less than two minutes into the half. Then, after a short jumper by Kyle Kuric, the Cardinals had a chance to get into their press for a change – and fell asleep, allowing Kadeem Batts to get behind everyone for a dunk and conventional three-point play.
Siva would come back five minutes later, with the Cardinals figuring they had nothing to lose. He fouled out with 11:05 left. After that, Vincent Council was more free than ever to help the Friars run circles around the Cardinals, and they did just that as they led by as many as 34.
The Cardinals have good talent, but not great. There’s no one on this team that leaps out at you as a future lottery pick, and their best players have their flaws. Siva is very quick, but can’t shoot and only has one speed. Kuric is a nice scorer with the way they play, but not a spot-up shooter and isn’t good at creating his own shot. Chane Behanan is talented but not an instant high-impact player. Gorgui Dieng has had a nice run this year with six double-doubles, but NBA scouts aren’t exactly breaking his door down as foul trouble is an issue. Jared Swopshire, who is coming off an injury, is a nice player, and Rakeem Buckles is similar in both respects. Buckles missed some early games this season recovering from a torn ACL.
Louisville has other players who were either overrated coming out of high school, like Angel Nunez, or just aren’t Big East players, like Chris Smith. There’s also freshman Zac Price, a nice prospect who isn’t ready for big minutes just yet and has been in just five games, and classmate Kevin Ware has barely gotten off the bench after missing the first semester.
To be fair, the Cardinals are without perhaps their most talented player and a key complementary player due to injury. Wayne Blackshear could suit up later this month, while Mike Marra is done for the season with a torn ACL. Losing Marra means they have lost a veteran shooter, while Blackshear is their most talented player.
In light of the personnel issues, the Cardinals played a lot of zone on Tuesday night. They didn’t make enough shots to ever really get into their press, so it wasn’t much of a factor. But it might have been a little surprising to see so much zone from the Cardinals, which the Friars picked apart thanks in part to going 9-15 from three-point range, led by Bryce Cotton’s 5-5 night.
“We weren’t ready tonight to play man for a variety of reasons,” said Pitino. “We’re just not ready right now.”
Last year, Louisville was truly less talented than the Cardinals have been in a long time, and Pitino did perhaps his best coaching job. This time around, he’s had to make do with less than it looked like he had, and while they have played well considering their talent, a night like Tuesday night showed that this team is good, but not a top 10 team in the country. With four losses in five games, now we’ll see if this team can overcome adversity instead of letting the season get away from them.
As Pitino noted, we will have an idea of that soon. After hosting DePaul, they travel to Marquette and struggling but dangerous Pittsburgh, come home for Villanova and then head to Seton Hall to close out the month.
Tuesday night’s game will ultimately stand out as an outlier among the Cardinals’ results this season. The games going forward will tell us if this team is more like the one that was right there with Georgetown and Kentucky, or the one that lost by 31 at Providence.