Louisville Men Wow in Big East Play

By on March 20, 2013

By Noah Allison–

The Cardinals ended the season with another Big East title. Now, they prepare for NCAA Tournament play.

After enduring the longest regular season loss in Big East history in the five overtime game at Notre Dame, Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals finished off the regular season with a seven game win streak that earned them a share of the Big East Championship.

They rode that success into the final Big East Tournament before the staple programs make their departure. Louisville was given chances for redemption against three teams that beat them in the regular season, beating Villanova in the first round 74-55, Notre Dame in the second round 69-57 and coming back from 16 down against Syracuse in the Championship game the Cards were able to win 78-61.

The Cards head into the first round of the NCAA National Tournament on a ten-game win streak with a 29-5 record overall. A team like Louisville only has a legitimate chance at winning the National Championship because of the depth and reliability at every position through and through. A stout defense that has been giving up an average of 55 points through the ten-game win streak has truly been the face of the team, but talented players at every position is the makeup of success in Louisville.

The frontcourt: “Getting big” has been a key focal point the Cards success during the current win streak. Six-foot-eleven, 245 pound junior Center Gorgui Dieng has made his presence felt down low throughout the season; Dieng is “Jaws” and opponents are the poor swimmers he feeds on. Dieng led the team in rebounds with 266 and blocked shots with 68, despite missing seven games with a broken wrist. He averaged a double-double throughout conference play and his oncoming offensive presence throughout the run makes him a threat on both sides. Dieng averages 30 minutes a game, but when he is resting up for those ten minutes back-up center, senior Stephan Van Treese comes in. Van Treese, at six-foot-nine, 245 pounds, is one of the only players on the team who really likes contact down in the paint. In the 10 minutes he averages, Van Treese beats up the opposition physically, plays sound defense and is reliable for tip-ins and a few offensive looks. His 98 rebounds and dependability throughout the season has kept Pitino calling his number to come in for Dieng throughout the game.

At power-forward, the young combination of starting sophomore Chane Behanan and back-up freshman Montrezl Harrel bring diversity of ability to the position. Behanan at six-foot-six, 250 pounds, is fast and nifty more so than big and powerful. Despite the size difference he faces when going up against opponents, Behanan is second on the team with 217 rebounds.

Behanan is a force on the break away and has made the second most field goals on the team with 131 at 50 percent shooting. His ability to create second chance points for himself and teammates makes him one of the most vital members on the offensive side of the ball.

Behanan’s substitute is six-foot-eight, 235-pound freshman, Montrezl Harrel. Harrel’s colossal frame makes its presence felt on the court. His seven-foot plus wingspan makes him a wall when guarding the inbounds pass and his athletic ability unmatched by most. Harrel is second on the team with 25 blocked shots and under Pitino’s teaching is growing as a basketball player every day. His breakout performance of 20 points and seven rebounds in the Big East Tournament Championship game won him player of the game and showed off how even as a freshman, when he is playing to his ability he can have a major impact in important moments.

The backcourt: At the beginning of the season, when the Cardinals had only lost once and were looking to be the No. 1 team in the country, people were talking about Louisville’s backcourt duo of senior guard Peyton Siva and junior guard Russ Smith. Now heading into the tournament, Kevin Ware, the sophomore guard coming off the bench for both of them, has proven to play just as well and be as dependable as the two upperclassmen guards he is learning from. The three create a special core that allows them to stay rested and play their turn over heavy, fast defense.

Peyton Siva moved into second place all-time at Louisville in assists this year and was named Big East Tournament MVP for the second year in a row. He leads the team in assists with 200 and steals with 76, and second on the team with 340 points. The facilitator on both sides of the ball brings a senior veteran presence to a position that calls for it.

The Cardinals’ most explosive player and most dependable scorers is Siva’s backcourt comrade Russ Smith. Smith is leading the team with 614 points shooting at 40 percent. The scorer known as Russdiculous isn’t all of Smith’s game though; he is right behind Siva with 100 assists and 68 steals. It is his 221 free throw successes that make him so valuable, shooting at 83 percent on his free throws.

Late into the season Kevin Ware has emerged as a valuable third guard whose minutes are well played. The  six-foot-two guard has been improving his already quality defense with 35 steals and has enhanced his shots while becoming more confident and dangerous on the offensive side. Between the three players, they have 175 steals and 1,088 points.

The X factors: The starting small forward Wayne Blackshear and his replacement Luke Hancock are two players that have had to deal with shoulder injuries. As they have become healthier throughout the year, they have also become better atheletes. In order to truly have a chance at winning the National Championship, the Cards are going to have to get big performances out of one of these guys in each game. They are both very similar in style of play; Blackshear has the athletic body of an NBA player and Hancock has the three point shot of a sharpshooter.

Blackshear has 106 rebounds and 40 made three pointers up to date. His mid-range jump shot is one of the prettiest on the team and his defensive play is an important part in the country’s most pressuring defense. Blackshear hasn’t had his best performances in the last few games; many would call to see Luke Hancock start in his place.

Hancock’s increased play may be one of the biggest reasons the Cardinals haven’t lost since going to South Bend. He leads the team with 52 three-pointers and has been almost automatic since the last few games of the regular season.

Hancock also brings the defense necessary to play for Rick Pitino. His late knowledge for the game and decision making will prove crucial in those important tournament games.

The two players are well-rounded without the desire to bring attention to themselves, yet they require attention.  Completing the team, they bring depth to the small forward position so that any night either one of them can step up. Combined, they have 92 three pointers, 69 assists, 61 steals and 156 rebounds.

With all the attention on the star studded frontcourt and backcourt of Louisville, Blackshear and Hancock just may be closer to being household names by the end of this tournament.

sports@louisvilleardinal.com
Photo by Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal

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