LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Russ Smith drives into the lane. You think there's nowhere for him to go, and yet, a moment later, he's at the rim, scoring.
I'm not talking about in the game. I'm talking about the postgame interviews.
Here's the setup to this column, after the University of Louisville beat Florida International 79-55 on Wednesday night in the KFC Yum! Center.
Everybody knows U of L is a good defensive team. The Cards lead the nation in Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings so far this season. They also ranked No. 1 in them at the end of last season after riding a steel-curtainesque defense to the Final Four despite an offense that sounded more clangs than your high school shop class.
The great defense is nothing new. But the Cardinals offense is now starting to come around -- and I'm not just talking about Smith, who reaches double-digits in a game somewhere as soon as he rolls out of bed in the morning. And it's more than the improvement of Peyton Siva, who made 5 of 8 threes against FIU to finish with 15 points, to go along with a career-high 12 assists.
No, the Cards are beginning to get production from the small forward spot. Luke Hancock had 11 points at Memphis. And against FIU, Wayne Blackshear went for a career-high 18 on 4-of-8 shooting from three-point range, and pulled down a career-high seven rebounds.
Now I could analyze all this for a while. Or I could just let you listen to the Russ Smith analysis.
"It's all confidence," Smith explicated. "The more confident (Wayne) feels, the better he performs. That's what we're tying to do, get guys to feel comfortable. Peyton and myself, we've been in a comfortable situation all season. Chane's coming along, and the young guys, they're all starting to get situated with comfortability."
Blackshear agreed. He acknowledged he's being more aggressive on the offensive end, and said a big key to it is that he's less worried about making mistakes and more focused on playing hard through whatever happens.
Behanan's offensive emergence is by design. Pitino went out of his way to install some sets to get the ball to Behanan, then went ballistic after a first half in which the team didn't do it at Memphis. After scoring just three points against Missouri-Kansas City on Dec. 8, Behanan is averaging 18 points per game in the two games since. He had 14 points and 11 rebounds on Wednesday.
Overall, the Cards still are shooting only 33 percent from three-point range, so the sample size of their recent three-point shooting is small. And from a scoring standpoint, they're still very reliant on points off turnovers -- 27.2 points per game off turnovers, in fact.
But without Dieng, who was one of the players that the offense was running through before his injury, and one it looked like the Cards could ill afford to do without, U of L has found ways to get by offensively, and even to improve. It figures to be a much more dangerous team when Dieng returns.
"We knew our offense was going to come along," Siva said. "Everybody's really doing well, putting in extra time on jump shots and their offensive game. . . . Wayne's playing really great right now. He's getting a lot of confidence. And then you have Luke (Hancock) who can have some big games like he had at Memphis, and Kevin Ware is playing really well. You've got Russdiculous, who can do anything he wants, and Chane's getting it going. Once we get Gorgui back it's really going to help us a lot. So my job is just to keep everybody in balance."
In fact, the offense has reached the point that U of L coach Pitino has begun to grouse about the defense again. You know, that defense ranked No. 1 in Pomeroy's statistics. He has a point. Without Dieng in the middle, U of L defenders have less margin for error. If you miss a rotation without Dieng in the game, you're likely to pay for it. Miss one with him in the game, and he can help clean it up.
Two of U of L's last five opponents have shot better than 50 percent from the field -- a rarity for the Cards.
"We did some good things offensively," Pitino said. ". . . But we still have a long way to go on defense. We are just not playing the kind of defense I want to play. We don't rotate a third and fourth time. But we are improving and that is key."
Improving, and reaching that all-important place of being situated with comfortability.