Despite losing in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis, the #2 Louisville Cardinals still left a stronger team than when they arrived on the island.
The Cardinals play missing one of their key players Gorgui Dieng, showed just how difficult to beat this team is by taking the #5 Duke Blue Devils down to the wire in a 76-71 loss. Dieng injured his wrist in Louisville’s semi-final win over the #13 Missouri Tigers and it’s unclear how much time he’ll miss. Although it doesn’t appear like anyone is thinking it could be something long term.
Had Dieng been able to go, the game would have played out much differently.
Louisville showed off a bit of their depth with Stephan Van Treese stepping up in Dieng’s absence to deliver eight points and eight rebounds off the bench. Still, you have to wonder how much of a factor Louisville’s leading shot blocker and second leading rebounder could have been in a game that would have made the Cardinals the nation’s top team had they won.
Regardless of the loss, it’ll be shocking if Louisville somehow falls out of a top four ranking. It wouldn’t make sense to penalize a team that has played as well as the Cardinals, just because of a five point loss to a Blue Devils who have the best team in the country. Especially after the team’s biggest defensive presence was forced to sit out with an injury.
The close loss without Dieng shows just how good this team can be when they are all healthy. Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski is aware of that after he claimed the guard tandem of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith to be as good as any guards in the country. The comments aren’t surprising after the duo took turns chewing up the Blue Devils’ defense. Both were named to the Battle 4 Atlantis All-Tournament team.
After combining for only eight points in the first half, Siva and Smith exploded for the Cardinals in the second half. Siva finished with 19 points, six steals and four assists while Smith had 17 points and seven rebounds.
Both players continuously hit big shots in the second half to keep Louisville close, none bigger than a Siva three pointer that gave the Cardinals its first lead since early on in the game. Unfortunately for Louisville, every big play by their guards was often quickly answered by Duke with the Cardinals continuously being unable to come up with a key stop to maintain momentum. Another example that keeps you wondering how much of a difference Dieng could have provided with his intimidating presence.
The Cardinals have no reason to hang their heads in defeat. Prior to the Duke loss they had an average win margin of 25.4 points so a close first loss of the season provides no need to panic. They could easily make the case that with Dieng they would have won the game and you have to think coach Rick Pitino is wondering the same thing.
One thing is for sure, even though they lost it’s hard to consider Louisville to be any less of a team after the performance they displayed in the final. With strong guard play and continued contributions from players like Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan over the three day tournament, Pitino has to like what he sees from his team.
Besides, the coach has been around long enough to know you don’t win anything worthwhile during the month of November in this game.