Louisville Cardinals Show Why They’re A Championship Contender Defeating the Kentucky Wildcats

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

By knocking off the Kentucky Wildcats with an 80-77 victory, the Louisville Cardinals proved they are one of the best teams in the country.

Louisville is not only a contender to repeat as Big East Tournament champions but they are also a major contender for the National championship.

Led by their star guard tandem of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, the Cardinals appeared well on their way to victory before foul trouble put the game in jeopardy. With nine minutes remaining in the second half, Smith, Siva and Gorgui Dieng all found themselves with four fouls. Dieng and Siva were given seats on the bench while coach Rick Pitino rolled the dice and left Smith in the game.

Suddenly, the one-time 17 point lead held by Louisville had evaporated as the Wildcats went on a run with the Cardinals in foul trouble. To stop the run, Pitino inserted Siva and Deing back into the line-up and Louisville held on to win the Battle of the Bluegrass state.

Siva was the only player of the three to foul out of the game. It was the second game in a row the guard had fouled out, along with the third time in four games he’s had at least four fouls. Prior to that, the senior had done a good job avoiding foul trouble but will have to tone down his aggressiveness in the future. He’s too valuable to the Cardinals to be on the bench with his averages coming into the game of 11.4 points, 6.3 assists, and two rebounds. He’s also averaging 2.3 steals per game which shows his aggressiveness on the defensive end pays off, however the senior should still be able to do a better job of picking his spots and avoiding the silly calls.

Smith showed his ability to stay on the floor and still be effective despite playing with four fouls. He led the way for the Cardinals with 21 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals against Kentucky. The backcourt of Smith and Siva combined for 40 of the team’s 80 points as they are arguably the best backcourt in the nation. Siva leads the way with his playmaking ability while Smith does the scoring with his averages of 19.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists coming into the contest.

Dieng’s foul trouble isn’t surprising considering it’s his first game back after a wrist injury suffered during the Battle-4-Atlantis tournament. The center’s return will only add to the team’s high pressure defense led by the guards. Not only do the Cardinals have two guards in the top five for steals in the conference but they’ll now be getting back one of its best shot blockers back as well. Before the injury, Dieng was averaging 8.2 points, eight rebounds, 2.4 assists, two blocks and 1.6 steals while shooting 50% from the field.

Louisville’s other paint presence was also on full display against Kentucky. Chane Behanan finished with 20 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals while shooting 8 for 13 from the field in the victory. The sophomore is continuing to build of his impressive freshman season from a year ago, averaging 10.8 points and 7.6 rebounds heading into the game against the Wildcats.

Another sophomore for the Cardinals that is building off his freshman year is Wayne Blackshear. The forward has seen his first year averages of only 2.5 points and 1.4 rebounds jump up to 10 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.

With potentially the best backcourt in the country, an intimidating shot blocker returning to health and depth at the wings, the Cardinals are only getting stronger.

Their guards are a nightmare to try and match-up against, especially if Siva is shooting 6 for 11 like he did against Kentucky. The fact they also like to gamble on steal attempts will only be aided by the giant eraser known as Dieng. Any failed attempt to steal the ball on defense will be a lot less noticeable now that the 6-foot-11, 245lbs center is back to protect the rim. Not to mention his presence in the paint on the offensive end will help draw attention that’ll free up Behanan to hurt opponents offensively. It’ll become a “pick your poison” type strategy for future Big East competition as they try to game plan against choosing to contain Louisville’s guards or their interior scoring. No team will be able to contain both without one severely struggling on their own. Remember, the undefeated Duke Blue Devils only managed to defeat the Cardinals 76-71, and that was the first game Dieng had to miss because of his injury.

With the defense solidifying and the offense continuing to improve, the Cardinals are one of the nation’s most balanced teams.

There’s a reason so many preseason predictions picked them to return to the Final Four.

Michael covers ACC and Big East basketball along with the Toronto Raptors for Rant Sports, you can follow him on Twitter @MichaelxRoberts

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