The 23rd-ranked Cardinals probably weren't the nation's fourth-best team when they started the season 12-0. Rick Pitino's team also wasn't nearly as bad as they looked during a late December/early January slump that saw them lose five of seven, including a 31-point loss at Providence.
Entering the final month of the regular season, the Cardinals seem to be putting the pieces back together for a strong post-season run. Louisville has won five straight, including an 80-59 pounding of UConn earlier this week, and is playing their best basketball of the season heading into Saturday's game against West Virginia in Morgantown.
How has once-slumping Louisville been able to get back on track? InsideTheVille.com examines a few key reasons:
DIENG DOMINATESGorgui Dieng has emerged as one of the nation's top shot blockers and, perhaps, the Big East's best big man as a sophomore. The 6'11 Dieng has been particularly impressive during Louisville's recent hot-streak. Since Louisville's loss to Providence, Dieng has largely stayed out of foul trouble and on the court. That's been a big key for the Cardinals resurgence in recent weeks. In Louisville's last seven games, Dieng has posted four double-doubles, while blocking 26 shots. Dieng has recorded 10 double-doubles, leads the Big East in blocked shots and ranks third in the league in rebounding this year. Dieng is the key to Louisville's success and he's played terrific basketball in recent weeks.
BEHANAN EMERGESChane Behanan's emergence the past few weeks as a consistent performer has been a key for Louisville's ascension up the Big East standings. The 6'7 freshman forward has averaged 13.5 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting 61 percent from the floor in the Cardinals past six games, including 23 points and 11 rebounds in a win over Rutgers. The key for Behanan? He's taken his game inside and has started to dominate around the basket like he did while earning McDonald's All-American honors in high school. In the last six games, Behanan has attempted just four three-pointers, while grabbing 21 offensive rebounds. Behanan snagged 8 offensive boards against Rutgers, and five vs. UConn. In Louisville's first 22 games, Behanan never grabbed four offensive rebounds.
SIVA REGAINS BURSTPeyton Siva has struggled to regain his sophomore form this season, partly because of an early season ankle injury. But now the junior point guard from Seattle seems to have re-gained the explosive burst that made him one of the Big East's top point guards last season. Siva has also changed his offensive approach, taking fewer three-pointers during Louisville's recent win streak. In the Cardinals last five games, Siva has attempted only three 3-pointers, while averaging 9.8 points, 5.4 assists and shooting 48.6 percent from the floor. Though he struggled with turnovers and fouls in wins over Pittsburgh and Seton Hall, Siva has been more judicious on both fronts in recent weeks. Siva dished five or more assists in 5 of the last 7 games, and has made two or fewer turnovers in three of Louisville's last four games. Improved shot selection, the development of a midrange game and better decision making from Siva are major reasons the Cardinals have been more efficient on offense.
SMITH, KURIC LEADINGSeniors Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric have stepped their games up the last few weeks and are providing strong leadership on the court for Louisville. Since a five-game slump in late December/early January in which he failed to score in double figures, Smith has averaged a team-high 13.3 points and made 19 of 40 three-pointers in Louisville's last eight games (He made just 15 of 52 in the Cardinals previous eight games). Kuric has also been strong lately. Since missing two games last month with an ankle injury, Kuric has scored in double figures in four of Louisville's past five games, including 21 against Pittsburgh. The 6'4 Kuric has also been hitting the boards harder, grabbing six or more boards in four of his last seven games, including 9 vs. UConn. For a team seeking direction during a midseason slump, Smith and Kuric are now providing both for the Cardinals down the stretch.
SMITH SPARKSRuss Smith can still be loose with the ball, evidenced by the fact that he has two more turnovers than assists in Louisville's past seven games. But the sophomore is playing more under control lately, and he's finding his teammates for open shots more often than he did earlier this season. Where Smith continues to excel is as an offensive spark off the bench. Smith has scored in double-figures in five of the Louisville's past seven games, including 25 vs. DePaul. In the Cards last seven games, Smith has averaged 13.7 points, nearly three assists and 2.4 steals. If Smith plays under control and uses his energy on both ends in positive ways, he's a major asset at both ends of the court for Pitino's squad.