The University of Louisville men’s basketball team was picked to be the best team in the Big East in the preseason.
After the Cardinals beat Providence College 80-62 Wednesday night in their conference opener Friars coach Ed Cooley said he believes UofL isn’t just the top squad in the Big East.
“I think our team just played the best team in the country,” Cooley said.
That after the fourth-ranked Cards (13-1, 1-0) overcame an early 10-point deficit, shot a sizzling 62.5 percent in the second half and turned 16 Providence turnovers into 27 points in their 18-point victory in front of 21,305 fans, who were also hyped up for the Sugar Bowl, at the KFC Yum! Center.
“We’re continuing to win with offense, protecting the ball and not turning it over and scoring the ball well,” UofL coach Rick Pitino said after his team’s ninth straight victory. “Our defense is nowhere near where we want it to be. I think our guys realize that and they will continue to work on it. We’re got a good victory tonight, a good Big East victory, and once our defense catches up to our offense we have a chance to be a really special team.”
Once again Russ Smith provided plenty of offense for UofL. The junior guard, who is now averaging an even 20 points per game, was 8 for 14 from the field – including 4 of 5 from three-point range – and 3 for 5 from the free throw line on his way to a team-high 23 points despite not starting. However he wasn’t on the bench long, checking in 2 minutes and 2 seconds into the game and playing a total of 29 minutes.
“I thought it could be a close game and I wanted to make sure those two guys (Smith and Peyton Siva) could play together towards the end of the game because of foul trouble,” Pitino said. “I also wanted to get Kevin Ware (who started in Smith’s place) a lot of playing time. Those guys gamble a lot and I wanted to make sure they didn’t get into foul trouble. Starting is really irrelevant.”
Four others scored in double digits for Louisville. Junior center Gorgui Dieng, in his second game back from a broken wrist, posted a double-double (11 points and 11 rebounds) while junior forward Luke Hancock added 11 points off the bench for the Cards, whose reserves outscored their Friar counterparts 40-5.
Early on, though, it appeared that the Friars’ hot-shooting from last season’s meeting had carried over (they were 9 for 15 from three-point range in a 90-59 victory). They hit their first three shots, including a pair of three-pointers, to lead 8-0 1:59 into the game.
Smith hit a three-pointer 38 seconds after checking in, but Providence (8-5, 0-1) responded with back-to-back baskets, including another three-pointer to take a 13-3 lead with 16:21 to play in the first half.
The Cards clawed their way back, though.
They outscored the Friars 15-5 over the next six minutes, tying the game on Wayne Blackshear’s layup.
The Cards didn’t take their first lead, however, until Siva’s dunk off a Hancock steal put them up 25-24 with 5:44 left in the half.
UofL took control with a 10-0 run (Dieng and Behanan had four points apiece in that spurt) late in the first half and a 14-0 one in the second half. Hancock hit a pair of three-pointers to highlight that second-half surge.
The Cards were 15 for 24 from the field, including 5 of 7 from three-point range, in the second half. Meanwhile the Friars, who shot 50 percent from the field (13-for-26, including 5 of 10 from three-point range) in the first half, shot only 40 percent (12 of 30) – including 3 of 10 from three-point range – in the second half.
In addition to outpointing Providence 42-28 in the paint, Louisville also outscored the Friars 27-7 in points off turnovers. Behanan had a career-high four steals, and Hancock had three, for the Cards.
“Let’s face it, their style of play, because they play so aggressive, there’s times where they get away with fouls that just can’t be seen,” Cooley said. “They get the benefit of the doubt by being aggressive, and God bless them.
“I’ve scouted every game that they have played this year and they have a lot of different answers, a lot of experience, they play a great style. I think, without question, that Louisville is the best team in the country. They have a lot of different weapons. They play a great pace. They use their depth. It seems like their players know their roles. They were fun to watch, even to scout. …Credit Louisville, they played well and there’s a reason why they are ranked so high, deservedly so. I think they should be the No. 1 team in the country, that’s just my opinion.”
Siva added eight assists and Hancock a career-high eight rebounds for the Cards, who now have a week off before playing at Seton Hall (12-2, 1-0) next Wednesday.