The Cardinals have held five of six foes below 54 points – Long Beach State scored 66 – and have allowed 60 points or less in nine of their last 11 games at home.
Rick Pitino's stingy defense, which forced 21 turnovers, including 14 steals in the 79-66 win over Long Beach State earlier this week, will receive a stern test from offensive-minded Vanderbilt Friday night at the Yum! Center.
Led by 6'4 senior guard John Jenkins, the SEC's leading scorer at 20.2 points per game, Vanderbilt averages nearly 76 points per contest. Three other starters – Jeffrey Taylor, Brad Tinsley and Lance Goulborne – average in double-figures. Picked to finish second behind Kentucky in the SEC, Vanderbilt has connected on 57 of 166 three point attempts in seven games this season.
"In order for us to win with this basketball team defense has to be our staple," Pitino said. "They're making 12 or 13 threes per game. When Preston (Knowles) left a big part of our offense left. We have to rely on our defense to get us W's. Defense has to be our trademark and we're going to be tested to the limits by this team because they all put it on the floor well, create a lot of motion and pass the ball well. I'm glad we've had some time to prepare because Vanderbilt is very difficult."
Chris Smith will draw the defensive assignment against Jenkins, who finished with 20 points and seven rebounds in an overtime loss to Xavier earlier this in which the Musketeers outrebounded the Commodores 54-33. Vanderbilt is playing without star 6'10 center Festus Ezeli.
"I'm going to check him pretty much the whole game," Smith said. "We have to limit his looks. From film it looks like he's a great shooter and he's on the (NBA) draft board. He takes 10 three's a game. If we can knock that down to four or five it'll be a successful game for us. I look at it as a great opportunity."
How does Smith plan to limit Jenkins' scoring chances?
"Don't let him touch the ball," said Smith. "We have to make sure we're on his tail at all times. The next thing is we have to stop the rest of the team from getting off."
Seniors Taylor and Goulbourne give Vanderbilt an experienced and accomplished duo at forward. Taylor, 6'7, averages 15 points per game, second on the team behind Jenkins. The 6'8 Goulbourne is the team's leading rebounder and averages 11 points per contest. Guard Brad Tinsley adds nearly 11 points per game.
"He's pretty close now," said Pitino. "Probably the only thing is he doesn't jump as high because of the ankle. His quickness is back and I think the rustiness is over with."
Injuries to Siva and Justice this season have allowed sophomore Russ Smith to play significant minutes at the point in recent weeks. Smith has responded by making better decisions with the basketball, and is coming off an 11 point, 3 assist, one turnover outing against LBSU.
"The good thing when you put Russ at that position is it kills everybody's scouting report because he doesn't know any plays," Pitino said. "Russ goes in there and just makes up all types of plays and the other coach and players are all puzzled because they don't know what we're running."
While Smith's play could confound opponents, Pitino knows what he'll get from the 6'0 guard when he steps on the court.
"I know he's going to shoot. I just hope it's a good shot," said Pitino. "Russ is a terrific player. The only problem is he lacks stamina. He's 162 pounds and is playing more minutes than he anticipated and he gets very tired because he works very hard. We love him because he brings a lot of laughter in stressful situations."
Smith will receive a big test against Vanderbilt's outstanding backcourt.
"You want a player like Russ because you're so well scouted that you need somebody like Russ or Peyton who can break you down off the bounce and create something. And Russ can do that," said Pitino. "I just want him to play good defense, build up his stamina and let him be himself because Russ' judgment is getting better each week. He's picking it up and we never want to take away that ability to create from him because that's a major, major asset for us."
A major key for Louisville will be keeping starting center Gorgui Dieng out of foul trouble. The 6'11 sophomore finished with 8 points and 9 rebounds against Long Beach State, but was relegated to the bench with four fouls. Without reserve Stephen Van Treese available because of a knee injury, Pitino will have to once again shuffle his lineup when Dieng goes to the bench against Vanderbilt.
"Without Van Treese and Gorgui in foul trouble the other game (Long Beach St.), we had to play a lot of musical chairs and I'm sure we're going to have to do that against Vanderbilt as well," Pitino said.
Pitino hopes 6'8 junior Rakeem Buckles, who is set to return next week against IUPUI, can provide relief for Dieng at center until Van Treese returns and Price matures.
"With Rakeem coming back now it gives us a backup five," Pitino said. "Not that we would normally play Rakeem as a backup five but it gives us some sense of relief when we put him in the game. This is no knock on Zach Price, a freshman who doesn't shoot free throws well, doesn't play defense well and has stamina issues, but with Rakeem you're getting a veteran who has been through the wars and knows the Big East. And although he may be three inches shorter (than Zach Price) can hold his own against any player he'll go up against. So that's going to be a big addition for us."
Junior guard Mike Marra, out for the season with a knee injury, underwent successful surgery this week to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
"He's in a lot of pain today because all the anesthesia worn off, but Fred said in another day he'll be feeling a lot better," Pitino said. "He comes to practice every day and aspires to be a coach. He's one of the smartest guys on the team in basketball knowledge. Mike will be great help to guys like Angel (Nunez), Kevin (Ware) and Wayne (Blackshear)."