AP photo

Louisville’s struggles on Saturday the result missing key players

Leave a comment

If you didn’t watch No. 3 Louisville’s 70-48 win over the College of Charleston on Saturday afternoon, if you simply took at gander at the box score after getting your fill of college football, you would think that the short-handed Cardinals made short work of the Cougars.

Hey, they won by 22 points, right? Russ Smith had 21 points and five assists. Chris jones went for 12 points, six boards, five assists, two steals and zero turnovers. They forced 21 turnovers, committed just three, and obliterated the Cougars on the offensive glass.

About par for the course.

But that wasn’t the case at all.

In fact, for about the first 35 minutes of the game, it looked like Charleston was going to take this thing down to the wire. They trailed 29-21 at the break and, despite Louisville making a couple of surges in the second half, were down just 48-45 with seven minutes left in the game. I watched it, and I’ll be honest: I came away much more impressed with Charleston than I did with Louisville. That’s not to say that I think the Cougars are a better team, but given the situation — the No. 3 team in the country playing at home on the day they receive their national title rings — I don’t think Doug Wojcik can in anyway be disappointed with his team’s effort.

Here’s the catch, however: Louisville is a long way from being whole right now. Chane Behanan may be back with the team, but he’s still suspended. He didn’t play Saturday. He sat the bench in street clothes. Luke Hancock was sidelined as well, dealing with an achilles injury that may keep him out for a few games. Throw in the fact that Wayne Blackshear started the game 0-for-11 from the floor, and the issue for the Cardinals is evident.

On Saturday, they were a one-dimensional team.

There was no low-post scoring presence with Behanan out. As good as Harrell is, he’s more of an effort guy, an athlete that will score in transition and will get dunks off of rim runs and offensive rebounds. He’s not a guy that you dump the ball into on the block and expect a bucket from, especially not when he’s going up against a Charleston frontline that can match up with his size.

With Hancock sidelined and Blackshear struggling, there was no perimeter shooting from this group, either. The result? When Louisville was forced into a half court set, the only way they were able to generate offense was through the ability of Jones and Smith to create off the bounce. They became a team that relied almost entirely on high-ball screens, and while that’s usually a major part of the Louisville offense, it becomes much more effecting when a defense as to be concerned about jump-shooters or a big man ducking-in.

It’s not a coincidence that when Blackshear finally got into a rhythm late in the second half, Louisville when on a 22-3 run to close out the game.

So yes, this was a concerning performance by the Cardinals.

But the concerns should be addressed once this group gets to full strength.

Hopefully, for Cardinal fans, that will happen by the time they have to face off with North Carolina in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
Leave a comment

Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Leave a comment

Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.