In another game for ESPN's "Rivalry Week," the 12th ranked University of Louisville basketball Cardinals (21-5, 9-4 Big East) traveled to Tampa's Sun Dome for a conference match up with the South Florida Bulls (10-15, 1-12). It was another huge stretch for the network. Sure these two teams play in conference and will for one more another season. However, calling them rivals strains ESPN’s already strained credibility when it comes to their coverage of the Cards. The Ville prevailed over their “rival” 59-41.
Louisville didn't have their typical tortoise-slow start as they typically do during away games. The Bulls played out their adrenaline early so it briefly looked like they could hang with coach Rick Pitino's Harlem Shaking squad.
Luke Hancock got into the game early with a short jumper. Fellow front court players Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan got a couple of impressive dunks.
True to his word, Pitino subbed early for Dieng. After the last game against St. John’s, the coach said he's been playing Dieng too many minutes so Stephen Van Treese came in early. The coaches worry has been that when Van Treese is in the game, the offense is 4 on 5. His worry was justified since the senior center didn’t score a single point.
At one time in the first half, it was starter Peyton Siva and 4 subs. Anyone who's watched Pitino coach knows it's close to March and you have to have the entire team pointed toward the postseason. Significant minutes puts the Cards in that mindset. That kind of confidence rubbed off on Kevin Ware who hit big shots early and finished with 7 points including a triple.
The Cards kept the defensive pressure up and once the initial South Florida runs went away, Louisville went up by double digits. And it got to be fun, too, as evidenced by a three man fast break opportunity that ended with a Russ Smith layup and foul.
True to form, though, Smith got a little out of control at the end of the first half. In this case it proved to be no-harm-no-foul as the Cards went into the locker room up 32-24 on the strength of Blackshear's 10 first half points.
Siva caught an elbow early in the second half and went out of the game with blood coming from his mouth. That put Smith on the point. Russ would have to calm himself down to assume the leadership role and he did just that. While Siva was on the pine, the Cards looked a little disjointed but the talent level on the red bench maintained the lead.
It also helped that USF went cold from long range. They scored on their rare opportunities inside, but their red hot three point shooting couldn't continue. In fact, all shooting went away. They shot just 24.5% for the game. When the Bulls made a run, Louisville answered.
That's another example of looking toward March. Coach Pitino had career win number 650 on the line, but that was less important than getting his team to play like a former number one.
The Cardinals kept their composure and kept grinding it out with various versions of the 9 man rotation. By doing so, the lead ballooned to 22 points. And that's without Tim Henderson or Zach Price coming off the bench. Adding them into the mix means you can take 11 players into the tournament and match up with anyone in the country.
Louisville doesn’t play again until Saturday when they welcome Seton Hall to the KFC Yum! Center for a noon tipoff. Luckily this game will be on the Big East Network and WHAS-11. At least they won’t try to manufacture this one as a fake rivalry.
Photo: Louisville.com/Tim Girton