Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 1/16/14
    Russ Smith Red Alert: Time to Sound the Alarm for the Louisville Cardinals             Around the midpoint of the previous two seasons, the Louisville Cardinals have been rudderless at the beginning of conference play only to eventually straighten the ship with a result of two Final Four appearances and a National Championship.  Last year the defending champs began Big East play 4-3, including three consecutive losses. Two years ago the Cardinals wound up in the Final Four after opening the Big East at 1-3, including one of the program’s most devastating losses in a 90-59 road route at Providence. Those two teams had Peyton Siva’s leadership and playmaking ability at the point, Gorgui Dieng playing enforcer around the rim and Chane Behanan snagging rebounds in every square inch of the paint.  Last year after the Cardinals’ three consecutive Big East losses, Kevin Ware emerged off the bench to help spark the offense. This year’s Cardinals were looking forward to having half of that foursome return and help lead the offense. However, Behanan has been dismissed from the team, and Ware is now redshirting this season after re-aggravating his gruesome leg injury suffered in last year’s NCAA tournament. While Russ Smith has become more of a complete player after being forced to help fill the void at the point due to Siva’s departure to the NBA, other hopeful key contributors heading into the season are either not developing as expected or regressing from last year’s play.  Montrezl Harrell has been inconsistent in the frontcourt and still needs to show more maturation when facing adversity, especially when getting into foul trouble.  Hancock has regressed from his Most Outstanding Player performance in last year’s Final Four and in the last two games has shown signs of snapping out of his season-long funk, which has been attributed to the loss of Siva and his knack for getting Hancock the ball in situations where he can hit uncontested spot-up 3s. Hancock is still on a short list of the best spot-up shooters in college basketball, but a place on such a list becomes irrelevant when he only shoots one spot-up 3 the entire game like in the loss to North Carolina. The single biggest question for Louisville before the season was if they’d be able to replace Dieng’s interior presence and Siva’s shot-creating abilities. And judging from the losses to North Carolina, Kentucky, and now Memphis, they’ve answered that question with a resounding “no.” Behanan was supposed to couple with Harrell to help ease the loss of Dieng, but without Behanan, Harrell has been pressured more on the inside from opposing double-teams. Freshman center Mangok Mathiang is still adjusting to the college game, senior Stephan VanTreese doesn’t scare any opposing defenses into paying him much attention, and Wayne Blackshear’s profile currently adorns the side of every milk carton in Louisville. The Cardinals are desperate for someone to step up his game and help Harrell in the paint. Coach Rick Pitino has continually stressed that veterans such as Hancock and Smith must take charge if the Cardinals hope to make another title run.  However, the Cardinals just entered league play and are still without a quality win on the season.  That’s happened a couple of times before in the Pitino era, but there’s always been a Big East loaded with top 25 teams there to help turn the season around. The Cardinals will get a couple of opportunities to win a national statement game against quality clubs like Connecticut, Cincinnati, and a rematch with Memphis (they play everyone in the conference twice), but a big-time non-conference win would have been a huge asset in mitigating the detriment of a potential off night against a Houston or a South Florida. From here on out, the Cardinals’ schedule does not presently offer the opportunities for them to vault much higher up the rankings unless a slew of higher-ranked teams begin to suffer numerous setbacks of their own. Louisville will likely continue to be both a puzzling and frustrating team, but if it can maintain its balance of success on both sides of the ball it can still be a really good team, too. The Cardinals are one of just four teams nationally that rank in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. At the moment, the best outcome the Cardinals can seemingly hope for is to tread water atop the top-heavy American Athletic Conference and stay afloat in the top 25 in order to earn a middle seed in the NCAA tournament.  Hopefully by that point this Cardinals team will have discovered its identity and be ready to defend its title. Louisville battles the Houston Cougars at 7:00 PM tonight in the KFC Yum! Center.

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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