Rick Pitino's fourth-ranked Cardinals now stand 12-0 – Louisville is one of six unbeaten teams in college basketball – the best start for UofL since 1974-75.
Still, it's clear Louisville isn't playing anywhere near its potential. The Cardinals have struggled in their last two games –come from behind wins over College of Charleston and Western Kentucky.
It's no coincidence that Louisville's on-court leader – junior point guard Peyton Siva – was out of sync in both games. In his last two contests, Siva has made just 2 of 12 shots while committing 10 turnovers.
Friday night, Siva, who missed practice time earlier this season because of a concussion and ankle injury, played 35 minutes against Western Kentucky and scored just four points on 2 of 7 shooting. He committed six turnovers before fouling out late in the second half against the Hilltoppers.
"He did have a bad night," Pitino said. "He's falling on the ground too much and losing his balance. We've got to get him to get back to his game."
The easy portion of the schedule is now over for Louisville. The Cardinals face No. 16 Georgetown in their Big East opener Wednesday before travelling to Lexington for a showdown New Year's Eve against No. 3 Kentucky.
If Louisville is to extend their win streak into the New Year, the Cardinals need Siva to return to form. That means better shot selection and decision-making with the ball.
"He's had a bad couple of nights, but the whole team has," Pitino said. "I admire their grit and the way they come back to win."
Louisville is perhaps the most criticized unbeaten team in the nation. One reason is the Cardinals aren't dominating supposed inferior opponents like College of Charleston and Western Kentucky.
Against Bobby Cremins' bunch earlier this week, Louisville dug an eight point second half hole because they defended the perimeter poorly, allowing too many easy three's. In Friday's win over Western Kentucky, Louisville fell behind by seven after the break largely due to turnovers – UofL committed 20 – and poor shooting.
For the third time this season Friday night, Louisville shot worse from the field than their opponent, just as they did in wins over Ohio and Memphis. In all three, the Cardinals had to overcome second half deficits. Louisville shot just 40 percent against WKU, while the Hilltoppers shot 44 percent.
Why is Louisville struggling offensively?
Clearly, Siva's slump is a major reason. The Cardinals rely on their normally heady point guard to create scoring opportunities for others. But UofL managed just 11 assists against WKU.
Louisville also didn't get much offensively out of the power forward position against the Hilltoppers. Chane Behanan and Rakeem Buckles combined for only 6 points on 2 of 8 shooting. Those two have committed 8 turnovers, with only two assists, the past two games.
With Siva struggling, Russ Smith, who has scored double figures in five of the last six games, again came through for Louisville. Smith led the Cardinals with 23 points against Western Kentucky, one shy of his career-high against Memphis. He started Louisville's second half comeback and drained a three-pointer less than seven minutes remaining that gave Louisville the lead for good.
"He's winning us games on just pure intensity, pure heart," Pitino said of the 6-foot sophomore guard. "He's the reason we're winning but we've got to get the rest of the guys playing like that."
Louisville also received solid efforts from seniors Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric and center Gorgui Dieng, who recorded his fourth straight double-double, posting 13 points and 15 rebounds against WKU. Kuric finished with 15 points, his sixth straight game in double digits. He has made 35 of 66 shots during that span. Though Smith didn't score much, he made clutch free throws down the stretch to preserve the win.
Now, Pitino needs to get all of his players on the same page.
Louisville is 12-0 because of their enormous heart and unmatched effort. If they're going to win next week against Georgetown and Kentucky, Louisville's execution will have to match their grit and hustle.
"The effort is always good," Pitino said. "It's the execution that's poor."