Scouting Report: Louisville
Just imagine what could happen if coach Kevin Stallings's team could rebound… or protect the ball… or get to the foul line. Vanderbilt took a very good Xavier team – one with Elite Eight potential – into overtime on Monday in the first of two five-star showdowns this week for the VU crew. Yet, the Dores were outrebounded by 21 and eclipsed at the foul line by a margin of 15 attempts and 11 makes. VU committed 18 turnovers against the Musketeers as well. In an overtime game. Small improvements in just one of those three categories would have enabled the Commodores to win. The fact that they didn't only makes the ghosts of past March exits loom larger. These ghosts have to be dispelled if this program is to move forward.
There's really no need for much more commentary or analysis. Vanderbilt knows what it has to do against the Louisville Cardinals in Big Game Number Two this week. We'll see if the Commodores are up to the challenge.
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino spent the summer billing the 2011 season as a "bridge year", hoping to merely get through the year without taking much of a step backwards with an eye toward a big recruiting class and a big 2012. All the Cardinals did was reinvigorate Pitino by going 25-10, finishing third in the Big East, and reaching the Big East Conference Tournament final. Pitino returns the bulk of last year's overachieving team and with the injection of some talented freshmen, hopes to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
The biggest challenge for the 2012 edition of the Cardinals has been the seemingly never ending series of injuries that has already reshaped Pitino's rotation. The Cardinals have already lost blue-chip freshman Wayne Blackshear to shoulder surgery, forward Mike Marra to a torn ACL, and forward Stephan Van Treese for the foreseeable future with a lingering knee injury. In addition to those players being lost for an extended period of time, Louisville has also seen multiple players miss time with injuries ranging from a broken nose to multiple concussions. The situation has been so dire that at least two players have been practicing while wearing boxing-style helmets to avoid future injuries.
The injury situation has kept Louisville from developing a cohesive starting lineup, but it hasn't kept the Cards from winning games. Against an admittedly easy opening series of games, the Cardinals have won with a mix and match lineup on the strength of their smothering defense. The Cardinals currently rank third nationally in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 46 points per game while ranking second nationally in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to just 30 percent shooting from the floor. The Cardinals' defense gets things rolling for the offense, and while they struggled to get by Ohio, they did look impressive in winning at Butler without starting point guard Peyton Siva and in beating a talented Long Beach State team at home.
Projected Starting Lineup
Center – Gorgui Dieng – Sophomore, 6-11, 235 pounds; 2011-12 season averages: 8.3 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game.
Dieng has come a long way from his freshman year, when he arrived as a skinny, gangly kid with long arms and little muscle. In the offseason, Dieng worked extremely hard to put on more muscle and his work paid off. Now at 235 pounds, Dieng is much more apt to maintain position inside and be more of a rebounder than he was at any point last season. Always a natural shot blocker, Dieng hasn't lost any of his tenacity on the defensive end. If there's a weakness in his game, it's in his desire to be a shot blocking presence: Dieng often finds himself out of position and gets into foul trouble. Louisville needs him to be a more consistent defender without over-extending himself. Offensively, Dieng's post-up game has improved tremendously, but the offense is still run more around the perimeter than through him. Significant points from Dieng are gravy for Louisville.
Power Forward – Chane Behanan – Freshman, 6-7, 250; 2011-12: 9.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg.
Behanan was the jewel of Rick Pitino's recruiting class and thus far has lived up to every bit of the hype. Pitino, often reluctant to praise incoming freshmen, has praised Behanan as one of the best freshmen he's coached. Not the tallest power forward, Behanan makes up for it with a thick, bulky frame, a big, wide body that makes him an animal down low. Not afraid to mix it up in the post, Behanan does occasionally wander a little too far from the basket in hopes of hitting an outside shot that's really not his game. Still, he's given Louisville the presence on the glass that the Cardinals have lacked the past two years and can jump surprisingly well for a kid of his size. He's equally capable of facing up to a defender or playing with his back to the basket.
Point Guard – Peyton Siva – Graduate, 5-10, 176; 2011-12: 9.0 ppg, 5.75 assists per game
Siva's development this season has been hampered by a lingering ankle sprain that kept him out of the Butler game. Still, Siva is the unquestioned leader of the team, despite not being a loud or physically imposing figure. Siva is fearless in charging to the basket and has the ability to finish at the rim against taller front court players. Siva's challenge this season is to develop a consistent jumper. With the graduation of Preston Knowles, defenders are keying on Kyle Kuric's three-point shooting ability, often leaving Siva open outside. If Siva can add a consistent jump shot, he'll be more able to punish defenses that choose to leave him open to guard other perimeter shooters.
Shooting Guard– Chris Smith – Senior, 6-2, 195; 2011-12: 10.5 ppg., 3.2 assists per game.
Smith came to Louisville as a lightly heralded transfer from Manhattan, but has slowly developed into the Cardinals' best scoring threat. Not terribly quick off the dribble, Smith is a fearless shooter who won't hesitate to gun from three-point range off the dribble or off the high post screens that Louisville runs so well. With the loss of Preston Knowles, Smith has stepped in and been Louisville's most dependable perimeter shooter. If there's a glaring weakness in Smith's game, it's that he's not much of a threat to get to the basket off the dribble. For that very reason, he is far easier for defenders to guard outside. Still, Smith is a confident jump shooter who doesn't turn the ball over and is a solid defender who makes few mistakes.
Small Forward – Kyle Kuric – Senior, 6-4, 195; 2011-12: 12.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg.
A rather undersized small forward, Kuric essentially gives Louisville a three guard lineup. Kuric is easily Louisville's best spot up shooter and when he is really feeling it, can score points in bunches. Kuric has developed a reputation for his ability to stretch defenses horizontally by knocking down threes from the corners along the baseline. Unlike Chris Smith, however, Kuric is quick and can definitely take the ball to the rim and beat his man off the dribble when called upon. Still, his strength is in being a target for a slashing Siva to kick it out to on the wing or out of the post when the defense sags. Kuric is also a tireless defender and at 6-4 is still a good rebounder. His ability to slide to the shooting guard position allows Louisville to go with a bigger front line at times and still not lose any outside shooting.
Jared Swopshire missed all of the 2011 season recovering from a surgically repaired sports hernia. His recovery was slow but after taking his time, Swopshire is Louisville's sixth man. At 6-8, Swopshire is tall enough to come in the game at the power forward position and keep Louisville from giving up too much height up front. Swopshire is also a dependable ballhandler and can knock down the outside shot when needed. His versatility allows him to substitute in several places and give Louisville a taller lineup when needed. With such a big front line for Vanderbilt, Swopshire can count on seeing significant minutes in the post.
Also likely to see significant time for the Cardinals are guards Elisha Justice and Russ Smith. Both are short (5-10 and 6-0, respectively), but they are crucial in giving Siva and Smith relief at the guard positions. Justice is a calm ballhandler and a good defender, but he is not much of a scoring threat. He's also recovering from a broken nose suffered in practice, and may be limited as a result. Smith was the last signee in the class of 2010 and many thought he was perhaps a reach by Pitino, but he's worked hard and developed into a nice compliment to Siva. Able to play both guard spots, Smith can be careless with the ball at times, but is a quick slasher who's also not afraid to shoot the three-pointer if given to him. With Siva still recovering from an ankle injury and looking a little rusty in his first two games back, Smith and Justice will be called upon to keep the Cardinals afloat and give Siva some rest in a big game against a very talented backcourt.
Keys to the Game
1) Possessions and ballstrong boldness.
Let's look at this game from a Louisville perspective for game key number one: Louisville has looked ragged offensively at times as the injuries have kept them from settling on an offensive identity. Friday night against Vanderbilt they'll be as close to full strength as they can be for some time, and they'll need to retain their defense-first mindset when Vanderbilt brings its talented backcourt of John Jenkins and Brad Tinsley to the KFC Yum! Center for one of the better early season non-conference matchups this year. If Louisville's defense forces turnovers and allows the Cardinals to play more in transition than in a simple half-court offense, Louisville's athleticism should be enough to win. If not, it could be a very long night for Louisville. Therefore, if the Cardinals' best interests are served at the defensive end of the floor, Vanderbilt needs to maximize possessions, chiefly by outworking the Cards on the boards and winning battles for 50-50 balls. Outfighting Louisville near the rim will prevent the Cards from getting in transition; shutting down the fast break of a Pitino-coached team is the surest way to grab this Friday's game.
2) Taylor-made scoring at crunch time. Vanderbilt couldn't buy a bucket in the final few minutes against Xavier. Jeffery Taylor, with his body and his package of skills, needs to be able to get to the tin and create foul shots when the Dores need late-stage points. Taylor has to play like a superstar, not just a quality contributor, for Vanderbilt to pull out this win and improve its overall resume.
MARK ENNIS is the co-founder and associate manager of the blog Big East Coast Bias. He is a frequent commentator on college football at the Twitter handle @Mengus22. Mr. Ennis wrote and researched the Louisville-specific portions of this report.
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