Russ Smith (Getty Images)
The Cardinals better hope this season follows a similar pattern because right now they're not playing at a high enough level to stay in the title chase.
Saturday afternoon's 73-66 loss to rival Kentucky exposed warts previously masked by Louisville's soft non-conference schedule. The Cardinals lack the size or muscle inside to match up against the nation's best frontcourts and their out-of-sync half-court offense is far too reliant on wild forays to the rim by guards Russ Smith and Chris Jones.
If Louisville's 11-2 record suggests there's no reason to sound the alarm bells, a closer look at who the Cardinals have played will raise more concern. They've lost to the only two good teams they've faced, North Carolina and Kentucky, and they've beaten nobody in KenPom's top 50, not a great sign considering the cupcake-heavy American Athletic Conference only offers a few chances for quality wins in league play.
To defeat the likes of UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati, Louisville will have to solve some of the offensive issues that were on display Saturday in half-court sets.
With Chane Behanan and foul-plagued Montrezl Harrell disappearing offensively and Luke Hancock still not consistently knocking down jumpers, Louisville neither had a post presence nor a 3-point shooter it could count on. As a result the offensive devolved into Smith and Jones trying to break down the Kentucky defense off the dribble.
The two undersized guards attempted 33 of Louisville's 58 shots and sank just 14 of them, sometimes resorting to driving 1 on 2 or 1 on 3 into the teeth of the long, tall Kentucky defense. Smith in particular was probably guilty of trying to do too much when Louisville fell behind, but it's hard to fault him entirely because he didn't get much help.
Louisville's defense and transition attack is good enough to cover up some woes from the half-court offense, but the Cardinals' lack of size is an issue on that end of the floor when they face a team as big as Kentucky.
There's no Gorgui Dieng this season to protect the rim and battle for rebounds. Six-foot-8 Montrezl Harrell is a capable rebounder and shot blocker but he has a habit of picking up bad fouls, 6-foot-6 Chane Behanan remains erratic and 6-foot-9 Stephan Van Treese can be a defensive liability if forced to defend ball screens on the perimeter.
Just as North Carolina did a month earlier, Kentucky exploited Louisville in the paint. Julius Randle scored at will before exiting the game due to cramps with 11 minutes to go in the second half and the Wildcats still gobbled up 17 offensive boards.
The one silver lining to Louisville's predicament is that it's only late December and plenty of time remains to correct the flaws that plagued the Cardinals against Kentucky.
In the past, Louisville has often improved dramatically over the course of a season and has entered the title mix by March. The challenge for the Cardinals this season is to fix their problems and follow the same pattern.
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