LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- For a while, it was like there had been no offseason. Here was the University of Louisville basketball team, in its first regular-season game of 2012, looking exactly like the Cardinals of last season.
That's not a bad thing, mind you. Unless you've got a problem with Final Fours. Or offense.
The Cardinals in Saturday's 79-51 win over Manhattan endured the all-too familiar experience of two first-half scoring droughts of just over five minutes.
At halftime, with a 28-19 lead, U of L fans in the KFC Yum! Center already seemed restless about their team's 3-for-12 shooting from three-point range. And of the Cards' nine first-half field goals, only three had come out of a half-court set, with one of those being a put-back by Chane Behanan.
In the second half, however, the No. 2-ranked Cardinals showed that there is some reason to believe things can be different. And, in some positive areas, the same.
U of L scored 51 second-half points, 21 of them off Manhattan turnovers and seven more off the offensive glass. But the half-court offense was the biggest improvement. The difference? Gorgui Dieng left the game with two fouls after just two minutes in the first half. In the second, he was back in the game, hit a pair of 15-foot jumpers in the middle of Manhattan's 2-3 zone, then whipped a couple of nifty passes to teammates for scores out of the high post.
"The most noticeable thing to me was how we attacked the zone when Gorgui was out of the game, and how we attacked with Gorgui in the game," U of L coach Rick Pitino said. ". . . I think it is the confidence of our team. They don't want to throw the ball to Zach (Price), Stephan Van Treese or Montrezl (Harrell) at the five, but they will throw it to Gorgui every time. Not only is he a good passer like David Padgett with the passing ability on the perimeter because he sees things, but he also has something David didn't have which was a really improved 15-foot jump shot. That is a big threat against a zone. When people come up on him, he is going to find the bounce pass on the baseline or he will look opposite."
It was the first indicator of how Pitino will attack zones with a team whose three-point shooting isn't a strength. With Padgett, Pitino often used the sharp-passing center in the high post and keyed the offense through him.
That's one element of the Cards' offensive attack. Another, slashing players like Russ Smith, Peyton Siva and Kevin Ware penetrating the zone on the dribble, was nearly non-existent in the first half, but seemed to begin to come around in the second. Still, Pitino wants zones penetrated with passing, and that's going to be a skill that develops as the season progresses.
U of L took 62 shots, and 30 of them were three-pointers. That would seem to be more than a team with one of the better projected frontcourts in the nation would want to take, but Pitino after the game said the answer wasn't to take fewer, but make more.
"I think if they are open, and those were wide open, then take them," Pitino said. "They were trying to stop our dribble penetration. We have to make them. Luke (Hancock) and Wayne (Blackshear) have to make those threes."
In the locker room, Blackshear said that's the message they're getting in practice. While shooting 30 threes with interior weapons of the kind this team has might be a dubious strategy, Blackshear said there has been no red light issued.
"If we're open, we have to make those," Blackshear said. "That's all there is to it. We're going to get those looks. No doubt, we have to make them."
Russ Smith led the Cardinals with 23 points but hoisted 18 shots (13 of them three pointers) to get them. Pitino said he had a quick-trigger on some of his threes, and was too rushed, "But everything he does in life is rushed."
Smith, however, was about all the U of L offense had going for it in the first half, and finished with a game-high five steals.
On defense, the U of L result is the same, even if the look is different. The Cardinals still have the ability to lock teams down, but gone is the 2-3 zone that last season they often ran like an NFL defense, disguising fronts, switching to man out in mid-possession or morphing into different looks depending on the defense's first pass.
This U of L defense was a straight-up man-to-man, and while there were still some breakdowns containing dribblers, the Cards also forced 27 turnovers -- the most for a U of L opponent since 2004 -- and swiped 16 steals while holding Manhattan to 35.7 percent shooting.
At least in the early going, Pitino says he's going to go with the more straightforward man-to-man, though the zone won't go into storage.
"I don't know how soon this team can pick up the stuff we were doing defensively last year," Pitino said. "Chris (Smith) and Kyle (Kuric) were 34 and 35 years of age, so they picked up things quick. I don't know if our guys can pick up everything we did last year. We are playing exclusively man and we haven't worked on zone much. We will need it though someday. Right now I am pleased with the man, but our guards have to help rebound."
U of L was outrebounded 37-33 and the margin was double digits for most of the game. Pitino said he's looking for more rebounding from the shooting guard and small-forward spots. Coaches charted that the Cardinals scored on 14 out of 20 fast-break attempts against Manhattan, and Pitino says his players know how effective they are on the break and are anxious to get out on it, so anxious in fact that they're leaking out and not helping on the glass.
"When you hold teams to as low a percentage as we do, and have the kind of percentage on the break that we have, you have to go get rebounds," Pitino said. "We have to get our guards in there and stop leaking out, but that's something we'll correct."
Chane Behanan came off the bench for his first game action of the season and finished with eight points, a team-high nine rebounds and three steals. Kevin Ware came off the bench to deliver 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting. Transfer Luke Hancock, in his first official action, scored eight points on 3-for-10 shooting and added four steals, while also committing three turnovers. Wayne Blackshear also struggled from the field, missing all five of his shots before nailing a three-pointer in the closing seconds. Depth was definitely on display. Eight players saw at least 16 minutes of playing time.
Peyton Siva scored 10 points and dished out 10 assists to match his career high. After four first-half turnovers, three of them on fast-break passes, he had only one turnover (and seven assists) in the second half.
"Peyton is the best point guard in the country," Pitino said.
"It wasn't one of his best games, but the whole game I hear him talking, leading, doing everything right," Manhattan coach Steve Masiello said.
Masiello, a former Pitino assistant who played for Pitino at UK, opened his postgame discussion by saying, "What a homecoming."
Of U of L, he said, "They were better than us today and they are going to be better than most teams. . . . Their size, their length is unbelievable. They get after you. Russ and Peyton were nightmares to deal with and then you have Gorgui in the back and Chane and Montrezl and guys like Zach and Stephan are giving them very quality minutes. There's no let off and that's what makes them so special."
It's a team that showed it will still fight some of the offensive issues from last season. But it does have some improved weapons to counter them with, and plenty of them.