The Louisville Cardinals began their quest for a 2013 national title with a 93-57 exhibition thrashing of Pikeville.
Statements this early that are along the lines of "that looked like the best team in the country" or "that looked like a national champion" always feel disingenuous for a couple of reasons.
1) It's Nov. 2 and no one has seen every potential national title contender play.
2) It's Nov. 2 and these are friggin' exhibition games.
So while I'm not going to allow myself to go over-the-top, I will say this: last night was at least as impressive a performance as I've ever seen from a Louisville team playing its first exhibition game.
There were a number of things that need to be worked on and two key contributors didn't even play, but for a team taking the floor in an actual game situation for the first time...that was awfully good. I think the performance was just about the best we could have hoped for at this point, and to be able to say that this early is pretty encouraging.
Let's start where pretty much everyone else has started today: Montrezl Harrell.
Pitino said last week that Harrell was "everything you want a power forward to be," and he was not lying. The kid is a tremendous rebounder, he runs the floor extremely well, he's an even better finisher than I thought he'd be, and he never seems to get tired. Trez isn't going to set the world on fire with his jump shot, but we knew that going in. He also needs to work on not leaving his feet on every head fake, because with that wing span it's going to be awfully difficult to get shots up over him if he times his jump right.
There were more than a few times when three or four guys were going up for a rebound and Trez seemed to come out of nowhere to leap above all of them and come down with the ball. He has much better hands than I expected, which is terrific news considering how many times he's likely to be in position to score easy buckets, whether it's on the break or off put-backs.
Though he'd never show or say it, there had to have been at least a small part of Chane Behanan thinking "oh s--t" last night, and that was the other big reason I was excited to see Harrell do what he did. Pitino talked after the game about how Harrell "is not Chane Behanan," but if something were to happen to Chane, there's no question that the drop-off at the four position would be considerably less severe than any of us could have imagined going into last summer.
He's not geting an extreme amount of love in large part because I think people expect so much from him, but I thought Peyton Siva was tremendous. He's been a bit of a slow starter the past two years, so to see him come out looking so in control of himself and the game was really refreshing.
He's not going to miraculously shoot 48% from deep this year, but I did think his jump shot looked slightly improved. The unnecessarily high arc was gone, which was most evident when he casually buried a jumper from just inside the arc during the early part of the second half.
Where Peyton was most impressive, however, was finishing around the rim. It's always been a strength, but last night was something else. He attacked the basket and went up strong looking to finish, not just draw contact.
Really good stuff all the way around from the senior captain.
Even when he was carrying us at times last season, I don't think any of us ever took Russ Smith completely seriously. He was like this strange phenomena that started 100% as a joke, and then when it got serious no one knew how to handle it, so it just stayed a half-joke. It was the strangest thing I've ever seen as a U of L basketball fan, and I'm not sure that's ever going to change.
It's no longer a joking matter, though: Russ Smith is good at basketball. He's still going to have his share of Russ moments, but there's no question that he's going to be an integral part of any success the Cards have this season. Can you imagine reading that statement in a serious voice 12 months ago?
A friend brought this point up last night and I completely agree: Russ' constant desire to attack and score is the biggest asset he brings to this team. Think about how many times we've seen Louisville squads standing around, waiting for a teammate to do something, and ultimately letting inferior teams hang around when they have no business not being run out of the gym. That doesn't happen when Russ is on the floor, because he's constantly attacking. It's a mentality that's also contagious.
It's good that the team doesn't want to make mistakes for fear of drawing the wrath of Coach Pitino, but the individual worries about making mistakes really hurts the Cards as a whole when they're having bad offensive games. Russ having literally no fear of anything couldn't be more important in those situations. He just makes things happen, or rather, he forces things to happen.
I love where the conversations turn during early season exhibition games or blowouts.
During the second half, one of my friends remarked that he thought Gorgui was playing "too Hollywood." This, naturally spawned a "Gorguiwood" nickname, which then spawned California alter-egos for just about every other player on the team. "Russ Angeles," "Behanaheim," "Santa Marrabara" and "Riverslime" are the only ones I can remember.
There was also a brief discussion about the most appropriate song for Dark Slime's Yum Center debut. Tom Petty's "Learning to Slime" took top honors there.
Speaking of Gorguiwood, the most impressive aspect of his game, I thought, was his use of the left hand. Granted he wasn't going up against post players who could block his shot, but I thought it still looked significantly improved.
He also swatted about 97 shots, but that's expected.
The fan base seems to be pretty split on the black hooded warm-ups, but I'm going to go ahead and go on record and say that I'm a fan. They're different, and I think the players dig them. I'm also like 95% sure that Russ played a part in designing them.
It's like Pitino jokingly made a deal with Russ last summer. "Ok, Russ, if you somehow play a major part in us getting to the Final Four, your best friend can play on the team next year and you can design the warm-ups."
Tell me you didn't just read that with a Pitino accent. If you didn't, go back and do it again because you're not Chronicling right.
Watching Russ and Dark Slime this season is going to be the best twice-a-week reality show of the winter. They're pretty hysterical.
Not the best overall performance from Luke Hancock, but the thing I was most disappointed in was the handful of times he seemed to dog it a little bit. And I wasn't the only one, as it was a hot topic of conversation among everyone around me in the crowd.
After he made his second turnover at the beginning of the game, he put his head down and jogged back to the other end of the floor, where the man he was supposed to be guarding already had the ball in a position to score. You just can't do that type of stuff if you're the captain of a team with national title aspirations. Being a vocal leader when one's needed is great, but you have to back that talk up.
Bright pink sweater from C.L. Brown on the first night of the season? I mean he looked fantastic and made quite a statement, but you gotta save that ish, man. It's a long season and it's going to be chock full of big game opportunities.
Never thought Crutches Mike could make me smile, but...
Oh why do you do it to me, Crutches Mike?
Fat Wayne had several stretches where he looked fantastic, but the talk about his playing shape hasn't just been Pitino-Speak. Every time he was subbed out of the game he looked like he was about to die. There's no question that he can be an All-Big East player, but not if he's only in good enough shape to play 25 minutes a night.
The pregame intro video was cool, but I feel like it's going to need to be spruced up a little bit once we get into the season. The highlights and stuff are awesome, but the fans are pretty much just sitting there watching and not making any noise the entire time. That's going to get stale after a couple of weeks. You need something at the very beginning that can make the crowd cheer, especially for big time home games.
I'm not sure Zach Price has ever consolidated one of my positive cheers. It happened at least three times last night. He'd get a rebound or block a shot, and I'd say "there you go, Zach" and then approximately .5 seconds later he'd lose the ball. You have to love how hard he plays, but there's never any steadiness to his game. He's the only player I've ever seen who constantly looks like he's head faking when he plays defense.
Early leader in the race for best Russ picture of the year.
It's like when an amateur is leading at 1 p.m. on the first day of the U.S. Open. It's cool, but you know there's better coming.
Trevor Setty didn't bother me nearly as much as he did last season, but a lot of that was probably because he had 12 of his first 13 shots blocked. Brandon Greene on the other hand...kid needs an attitude check.
I hate to call out The Ladybirds like this, but their "Thriller" routine was the first time I can ever remember seeing more than a couple of noticeable mishaps. I know it's not an ordinary routine that you work on constantly, but...you're the Ladybirds, dammit.
I've stated many times that last year's squad was probably my favorite of all-time. You all can't rest on the accomplishments of that group. It's time to start paving your own path.
I hope this is the last time we have this talk.
Great ovation for The Bullet before the game. Can't write any more about it or I'm going to tear up.
Miss that kid. Miss him a lot.
The whole "tweet the @UofLFanZone account and we'll play your song" is a disaster waiting to happen. Just wait until the first concerted effort to get "Love in Your Mouth" played takes place. It might have actually just happened.
Angel Nunez's shot looks so pretty when it goes down. He still doesn't look ready to play considerable minutes (especially at the four), but I do think he's going to demand spot duty when we're playing teams who pack in their zone and force us to let it fly from the outside.
Jordan Bond takes an early lead in the walk-on of the year race. The young man from Manual buried two free-throws, snagged three rebounds, notched a steal and dished out an assist. That's a Gianiny-esque debut.
I hope everyone soaked up every millisecond of "Bond to Baumann," because it doesn't get much better than that in exhibition play.
Stephan Van Treese is going to play a much larger role this season than I think any of us (including me) realized when the "yay, Van Treese is back on the team, that makes me happy" news broke this summer. His energy level is insane, and he was moving better last night than I think he ever has in his Cardinal career. It's going to be awfully hard to keep him from getting minutes at both the four and the five. I'll be surprised if he isn't Gorgui's primary backup by tournament time.
Hendo was aware of the contest, without question. No way he's missing bunnies and free-throws if he isn't.
Just getting you ready for the pressure of a championship run, Tim. Better now than March.
I hope "Halftime Mongok Shootarounds" become a normal thing.
Pikeville was obviously not used to TV timeouts. They were out of their huddle and back onto the floor after about 15 seconds every time there was a stoppage of play. That left them staring awkwardly at Air Louis as he molested front row patrons for the remaining two minutes before play resumed.
Overall, about as positive an opening (exhibition) night as any of us could have hoped for.
It always feels so good to be back. This year especially. Special days lie ahead.