After the Louisville basketball team’s disappointing home loss to Memphis two weeks ago, the Cards have reeled off four straight dominating victories against American Athletic Conference foes. The streak has vaulted the Cardinals back to #12 in the rankings and sets up a showdown with the #15 ranked Cincinnati Bearcats on January 30th in the KFC Yum! Center.
The Cardinals resurgence began with a 71-63 victory over the SMU Mustangs, which offered a hint of the Cardinals’ potential when seniors Luke Hancock and Russ Smith have their games clicking. Hancock had a career high 23 points, including 19 in the second half, and Smith matched Hancock with 23 of his own.
Rick Pitino acknowledged the Cardinals’ mid-season struggles of both this year and last year when recognizing that Louisville was “a little down after the Memphis game because we gave it away, (and) we were down last year after we lost three (in a row).”
The Cardinals followed up the SMU victory with a drubbing of the visiting Houston Cougars 91-52. This time the Cardinals were led by junior Wayne Blackshear, who scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed 7 rebounds. The game was Blackshear’s first coming off the bench this season after Pitino decided such a move might help better utilize Blackshear’s effectiveness and keep him out of foul trouble. Blackshear recently had a stretch in which he fouled out of three in five games. Pitino’s strategy paid off as Blackshear’s 23 points were more than in his previous three games combined (18).
The Cardinals next matchup would likely be its toughest as it visited the Connecticut Huskies in the first prime-time College GameDay broadcast of the season. Other than during March Madness, there would not be a better opportunity for the Cards to attract attention from the national media while also turning around their basketball season than this matchup against the Huskies.
The Cards seized the opportunity and notched its first quality victory, 76-64 in a packed Gampel Pavililion. Once again, a different player on the Louisville squad stepped up to lead the Cardinals to victory. This time it was sophomore Montrezl Harrell, who has recently struggled with his interior game. Harrell, however, guided the Cardinals to victory by putting up 18 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Louisville dominated the glass, outrebounding the Huskies 45-30, including 16 offensive rebounds. Louisville scored 40 points in the paint, led by Harrell, and was very aggressive in attacking the interior. The Cardinals also dominated the paint on the defensive end, limiting the Huskies to only 20 points around the basket. Overall team defense and rebounding was stressed by Pitino as lacking after the home loss to Memphis, but after the victory at Connecticut, Coach Pitino recognized that “our defense has picked up, our rebounding has picked up.”
Louisville followed up its impressive road victory over the Huskies by routing the South Florida Bulls last night 86-47 and notching its fourth straight win. While in the previous three games one or two players on the Cardinals emerged to assist in leading the team to victory, the win against the Bulls proved to be a total team effort as five players put up double figures.
The Cardinals were led by Wayne Blackshear again, who put up 16 points. Harrell and Hancock both followed with 14 points. Russ Smith followed with 12, and center Mangok Mathiang notched 10. Louisville was again impressive in the interior, led by Harrell’s 10 rebounds, which earned him another double-double on the season.
Pitino once again stressed the emergence of his team’s active defense, which will be critical if the Cardinals are to defeat the #15 ranked Cincinnati Bearcats and their top-3 defense when they visit the Cardinals next Thursday. The Cardinals have no games until then, but the Bearcats have two matchups against UCF and Temple. Barring a slipup by the Bearcats, the game next Thursday will be a matchup of top-15 teams. The Cardinals would be wise not to let such a rare opportunity to secure a win against a top-15 team slip through their grasp, as they have few chances left on their schedule to notch a signature win.