We are only six games into the season and the Louisville basketball program has already had more than it's fair share of bumps and bruises. The list of players who have missed playing time due to injury is in Coach Pitino's words "ridiculous." A lot of the injuries have been what coach P called "freak accidents." Mike Marra tore his ACL on a wide open lay-up with no contact from any other player. Freshman G/F Wayne Blackshear has been battling eligibility issues and injury since what seems like the day he committed to the university. He tore his adductor in his shoulder during a workout with his father just one week after becoming eligible. Elisha Justice was hit in the face with a ball in practice Sunday and suffered a broken nose. Rakeem Buckles has been out since last season with a torn ACL. Peyton Siva has battled an ankle injury and although he is playing, it is obvious that he is not yet at 100%. Stephen Van Treese missed Monday night's game with a knee injury and is out indefinitely.
But despite the tough luck, Louisville has managed to start the season 6-0 and played very well against a veteran Long Beach State team, overcoming foul trouble to win 79-66 Monday night at the Yum! Center. A huge part of the teams success has been due to two players who this time last year were greatly unproven; Chris Smith and Russ Smith. With all the injuries at the point guard position Chris and Russ Smith have both been forced to move from the shooting guard position to play some point guard. "The best thing about all of the injuries is the development of Russ Smith. I probably wouldn't have played him as much if Wayne (Blackshear) was here" Coach Pitino said. Last year I was hearing rumors of Russ Smith possibly transferring. This year he has been a huge asset for the Cards. He scored 11 points in 27 minutes to go along with 3 assists and 2 steals. Chris Smith has been HUGE this year. He obviously spent the entire summer in the gym as his three-point shooting has been off the charts. He went 4 for 6 from beyond the arc last night and led all scorers with 18 points. To top off his amazing game, he added three assists, three steals, and no turnovers in 33 minutes of play.
Depth at the power forward and center positions has also been an issue. Although Jared Swopshire has played above expectations, and Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan have been stellar, Louisville has still been pretty thin in the front court. When Dieng or Behanan get in foul trouble or need a breather Coach P's options have been very few. This will soon change with the return of Rakeem Buckles. He returned to practice on Thanksgiving and has participated every day since. He will be back on the court before you know it, however Pitino will be cautious in not rushing him back too soon. "He will get a few minutes against IUPUI, a few more minutes against Farleigh Dickinson, and then we will let him play full out for the Memphis game."
The Cards have a couple of big tests coming up on their schedule. Tomorrow they face 19th ranked Vanderbilt. At times in the second half Louisville was late rotating on defense and that didn't sit well with Coach P. "If we make the defensive lapses we made in the second half against Vanderbilt they will pick us apart." Vanderbilt is coming off an overtime loss last night to #11 Xavier.
It was good to see the offense finally show up Monday night. We will need it tomorrow vs. Vanderbilt. The Cards are looking better as they become healthier and it should only continue as more players return to the lineup.