LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- It would be nice to select all your players out of the blue-chip, can't-miss catalog. In fact, the best college basketball programs today are pretty much able to do just that.
But every once in a while, even for those programs, somebody sneaks through that isn't supposed to.
Saturday in U of L's 69-66 win over Illinois State in the KFC Yum! Center, the two guys the University of Louisville basketball team absolutely could not do without were two guys it almost did without -- voluntarily.
Russ Smith had 24 points and made offense happen when the Cardinals could find no other way to do it. After Smith's freshman season, U of L coach Rick Pitino had told them there was little future for him in Louisville, and after a long talk with his father, decided they'd give it one more year and see what happened.
A Final Four happened.
This past summer, Pitino gave Van Treese the "you need to go somewhere if you want playing time" speech. Montrezl Harrell showed up, and Van Treese was out, even took a couple of visits. Then Rakeem Buckles decided to head back home to Miami to rehabilitate his knee injury, and Van Treese came back eagerly at Pitino's invitation.
On Saturday, he delivered enough defense and rebounding in the absence of Gorgui Dieng to help U of L avoid the kind of home-court loss that sends the pundits wagging and leaves team confidence flagging.
Instead, Van Treese came into the game early and seemed to be the spark the team needed. He played 34 minutes. Smith played 35 minutes. No other Cardinals played more than those two.
"It just felt good," Van Treese said. "I've been here a long time and never really felt like I was contributing the way I could, because of injuries or whatever. So it's good to be in a position to be able to help the team. The team needs it right now and I want to work really hard to make sure I come through."
You have to like it when the question goes from, "What am I going to do with this guy?" to "What would we do without him?"
"What I wanted for Stephan was to go to Bellarmine and play 38 minutes (a game) to get his confidence back in his game, then come back for your last year with us," Pitino said. "But get on the court and start playing because I didn't think he would play a lot with us. Then he started visiting Illinois and other places. I said that is absurd and ridiculous. I called him back and said that I have been reading all this crap, it is time to come back home. He said I am so relieved coach, I will be back immediately. I just wanted what was best for him and it is funny how things turn out." Here's how it has turned out for Van Treese. He hung tough against Mason Plumlee and Duke. And against Illinois State, became a player Pitino didn't want to take off the court.
"Stephan is a warrior. . . ." Pitino said. "We watch Kenneth Faried tapes and his technique every day. Stephan has looked at it. Stephan wasn't a good rebounder, because he stays in his plane. But he's been watching Faried and the key to why Faried is so great is not only does he block out at the defensive end, but he watches the ball the entire time, so he knows how to chase it down and tip it to himself. We're watching and trying to get that technique and Chane (Behanan) and Stephan have been getting better at that. He gave us a big lift when we needed it. It's going to be a fight. We're not going to have an easy game, but it's going to be a fight until we get our shot blocker back. But Stephan did a fabulous job."
As for Russ Smith, well, he's a study in contradictions.
"Russ nearly lost us the game by losing his man (at the buzzer)," PItino said. "But he single-handedly won the game. ... You know Russ is a very special basketball player. He does things you would never think of. He made a move with the game on the line that possibly we could lose, and he goes behind his back to make the move? You wouldn't even think of that. That is what makes him so special. He has absolutely no fear of anything and you have to have that on a basketball team. It doesn't matter if he is playing in the Bahamas or here. Some guys get tight at home, not Russ."
This would've been some conversation to overhear. Pitino said Gorgui Dieng -- who himself was the lesser heralded player in a recruiting race to land Fab Melo -- engaged Pitino in a philosophical discussion last week.
"Gorgui said something to me the other day," Pitino said. "He said things happen for a reason. I said Gorgui, ‘That is not true and I don't believe in any of that stuff. I said things don't happen for a reason. You fell down and fractured your wrist. That is not the Lord saying, 'I am going to take Gorgui out so Louisville gets more experience and drive Coach Pitino up the wall with a straight jacket.'"
Maybe not. But basketball works in mysterious ways. Van Treese and Smith leading the Cardinals in minutes played on Saturday is proof.
NOTES: The Cards got a combined zero points from Wayne Blackshear, Kevin Ware and Luke Hancock. The trio went 0-for-11 from the field, though they did combine for 10 rebounds. At a spot most teams count on for significant scoring, it's a problem.
"We're struggling a little bit right now at the three spot, we really are," Pitino said. ". . . We just have to keep staying positive, but we have to get better."
-- Pitino poked a little fun at himself and his tendency to build up opponents. He was talking about how good he believes Illinois State to be, saying, "They have one of the great young coaches in the game," and comparing Dan Muller to Butler's Brad Stevens. Then Pitino said this:
"You guys don't believe me because I tell you how great bad teams are, but this team, the Missouri Valley Conference, is terrific."
-- Pitino said Chane Behanan is going to have to change his free-throw form. He praised Behanan's overall play after the sophomore contributed 15 points (on 7-of-8 shooting) and nine rebounds, but made just one of seven free throws, including a couple of crucial late misses.
"I told Chane if he doesn't change his form, it's not going in," PItino said. "I actually was more pleased with his last two, even though they didn't go in."
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