Planet Red Hoops: Cards NCAA contenders
On Wednesday, the Cards traveled to Hattiesburg, MS to face the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles. The Eagles are tough in Hattiesburg, having won 8 of 9 at home this season, including a 17 point victory over the Memphis Tigers. But USM was no match for the red hot Cardinals. Behind the hot shooting of Erik Brown, the Cards ran the Eagles out of their own gym with an impressive 94-65 victory to improve to 6-0 in C-USA.
Then Saturday in what would have been the Cards first network television appearance of the season, the Cards faced the defending national runner-up #19 Indiana. Once again the Cards started slowly, trailing by 16, 40-26 late in the first half. But as has been the case so many times this season, the Cards superior conditioning and depth took it's toll on the opponent in the second half and the Cards blew out its second top 20 team of the season, 95-76.
After its thorough beating of the Hoosiers, there is little doubt the Cards possess the necessary ingredients to reach the Final Four in New Orleans this season. Few teams in the country can match the Cards talent, depth and relentless defensive pressure. Even fewer have shown the consistency and focus that these Cardinals have during it's nation's best 15 game winning streak. "They make you play their style of basketball. They are in great shape..Who's going to win that style of game? They are," IU's Mike Davis attested after witnessing first hand the beating the Cards put on his Hoosiers.
And with the nations top three teams, Arizona, Pittsburgh and Texas each losing last week, the Cards look to move up in the polls even further this week. So with that in mind, let's take a look back at the Cards two big wins over Southern Miss and Indiana.
How can you not start with Reece Gaines? Even though his scoring numbers are slightly down this season, no player means more to his team in college basketball than does Gaines. Not only is Gaines the catalyst for the Cardinals offense, he's also the guy who puts the clamps on the opponent at the defensive end. Forget about the 16 points Gaines scored against USM or the 17 he dropped in Saturday against the Hoosiers. Here are the important stats that have the Cards on it's current 15 game winning streak: 11 assists vs. USM and 6 more vs. the Hoosiers. Gaines also had 8 combined rebounds last week and played an iron man like 35 minutes in each game. Gaines is relentless at the defensive end of the floor and his constant probing and penetration of the opponent's defense are the key reasons the Cards averaged 94.5 points against the Eagles and Hoosiers.
Luke Whitehead has accepted his role off the bench and is one of the most valuable reserves in the college basketball. Luke does it all off the bench for the Cards. He defends, rebounds, scores points and brings constant energy when on the court. Although his shot wasn't falling in Hattiesburg, Whitehead played well and stuffed the stat sheet against Southern Miss. For the game, Whitehead scored 8 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in 24 valuable minutes. And for the second straight time, Whitehead played well against the Hoosiers. Whitehead finished with 11 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 steals in 26 minutes off the bench. Whitehead's continued solid play off the bench the rest of the season will be crucial to the Cards national title hopes.
Few freshmen in college basketball understand the game as well as the Cards' Francisco Garcia. He shoots when the opponent gives him the open shot, he drives when they play him too close and he's active on defense stealing and blocking shots. In only 10 minutes of action against Southern Miss, Garcia pitched in 10 points and pulled down 2 rebounds to help the Cards to a 29 point win to remain unbeaten on the road this season. Then Garcia exploded against Indiana in Freedom Hall on Saturday. Playing 28 minutes, second only behind Reece Gaines' 35, Garcia torched the Hoosiers for a game high 23 points. Garcia scored everyway possible against Indiana, dunking, driving and knocking down two long range daggers. Garcia also pulled down 3 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 assist and 3 blocked shots. For his effort against the Hoosiers, Garcia was named CBS Player of the Game and likely became the front runner for Freshman of the Year honors in C-USA.
Erik Brown, Marvin Stone and Kendall Dartez each deserve praise for their efforts this week. Brown was perfect against USM, hitting 8-8 shots from the field, including 5-5 from the three point line for a game high 22 points. However, his 3 combined rebounds against the Eagles and Hoosiers must improve for the Cards to reach their potential this season. Stone recorded his 4th double-double of the season Wednesday night in Hattiesburg, scoring 16 points and pulling down 11 rebounds in 28 minutes of action. And Kendall Dartez continued his good play against the Hoosier's on Saturday. Dartez scored 8 points, including two key put backs during the Cards second half come back and nailed a huge18 foot jumper to give the Cards a 3 point lead late in the second half. Dartez also pulled down 6 rebounds and dished 2 assists against the Hoosiers.
And who in college basketball consistently dominates its opponent's in the second half as the Cards have done this season? Six times this season the Cards have overcome double digit deficits to defeat its opponent. Saturday against the Hoosiers, the Cards trailed by as many as 16 points thanks to its two first half nemesis; poor rebounding and cold shooting. But the Cards relentless defense, constant pressure and excellent depth were enough to overcome Indiana in the second half Saturday, outscoring the Hoosiers, 60-33 after intermission for a runaway 95-76 victory. "We know that at some point the surge is coming..at some point we're going to get that run where everything feels like it's going our way," Francisco Garcia said of the Cards philosophy.
While the second half come backs are exciting, I'd prefer the Cards not dig itself first half holes against any team, much less top twenty teams. And the two biggest contributing factors for the Cards falling behind in the first half have been poor shooting and rebounding. Down 8 at halftime against Indiana, the Cards shot poorly out of the gate and were out rebounded 22-15 before intermission. With 10 games remaining in the regular season, look for the Cards to be more patient and improve ball movement early in the game to remedy it sometimes cold shooting in the first half and for perimeter players Brown, Garcia, Gaines and Dean to hit the boards harder than they have to this point.
Taquan Dean continues his mid season shooting slump. Against USM, Dean hit only 3-7 shots, and just 2-6 from three point range for 8 points. Dean then made just 2-8 from the field against Indiana, including missing his first six three point shots of the game. But a cold shooting Dean is still valuable to this UofL team. Dean pulled down 6 rebounds at Southern Miss and 5 more against the Hoosiers. He also had 3 steals against the Hoosiers touted back court (Coverdale, Wright and Strickland) and hit 2 huge shots late in the second half to bury the Hoosiers. As Dean himself said after the game, "I made the one's that counted." He certainly did and when his shot starts falling again, the Cards first half deficits will be a thing of the past. So let me be the first to issue get well wishes to Taquan's ailing outside shot.