NASHVILLE, TENN. (WDRB) -- For much of this season, the University of Louisville basketball team has been the Siva and Smith show.
No matter who else played well, the Cards' catalysts were Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, whose play at the guard spots has been consistently superb.
But Saturday night in a town that bills itself as Music City USA, some understudies moved up to prime billing in a 78-55 victory over Western Kentucky.
Take a look at the minutes played -- a category in which Siva and Smith rank 1-2 on the season. The two guys who played the most against WKU? Chane Behanan with 34 minutes and Wayne Blackshear with 31.
Blackshear, in fact, hasn't played more than 30 in a game all season, but if he continues to play the way he did Saturday, it's going to be tough to keep him off the court.
Blackshear had six rebounds in the game's first four minutes, and finished with 17 points on 7 of 12 shooting, including 3 of 6 from three-point range. He scored inside and out, flashed a couple of midrange jumpers, and played the kind of aggressive, physical game that made him a coveted high school prospect.
"He's getting better and better," U of L coach Rick Pitino said. "I think that fans and (media) alike just don't realize what double shoulder surgery is all about. ... When you have two injuries, it just takes time and patience. Even close friends and family members of his didn't understand it, but they do now."
Blackshear, who raised his season scoring average to 10.0 per game, admitted, "I'd like to say the injury wasn't on my mind last year, but obviously somewhere it was. I just feel like I'm getting more comfortable out there and things are going well."
Blackshear pulled down a game-high eight rebounds. Chane Behanan was one behind him with seven, and finished with 14 points on 6 of 12 shooting, including a few mid-range jumpers and others in the post. Behanan's time on the court reflected Pitino's estimate of what he was giving the team defensively.
And one other player who also is beginning to log major minutes further may be bringing the focus of this team to the frontcourt. Montrezl Harrell logged a career-high 31 minutes in the win at Memphis, and played 27 against WKU, with his best stat line so far this season.
Harrell scored 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting, pulled down six rebounds and blocked four shots without a turnover. His acclimation to the center position has moved Zach Price more to the bench, and gives the Cards another long, athletic presence across the baseline.
"He played really well," Pitino said. ". . . He's a very good basketball player and tries hard. He doesn't know how to play post defense, and that's his weakness. But he's very talented and very skilled -- he's got to learn how to pass it and play post defense. But he's a freshman, and there's no better place to learn it than on the court."
The Cards needed the efforts of all three of those because, despite rushing to an early lead, it wasn't a memorable night for Smith or Siva.
In fact, Smith was particularly frustrated early. WKU coach Ray Harper made sure he was scattered, smothered and covered every time he touched the ball.
Finally, with Smith turning the ball over in bunches and lacking much of his usual defensive energy, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino invited him to sit down on the bench midway through the first half, then reminded him in the gentlest of holiday tones that he, "Isn't playing (expletive) defense. So you're not (expletive) scoring. So what? The team's playing great. You're (expletive) Louisville."
After the game, Pitino said, "Russ learned a valuable lesson tonight. I tried to tell him the other coach has won four championships, so on the board he's going to try to do everything possible to stop Russ Smith. So if you're a veteran in the NBA (and that happens) you're going to try to get everybody else the ball, get all that scouting off your back, so that you can come alive the rest of the game. But as we say in coaching, sometimes, it goes in one ear and out the other. And it's somewhere in Queens right now for Russ."
Of course, Smith still finished with 20 points. In for Siva after the point guard fouled out with five points and five assists with four minutes left, Smith handled the ball, went to the free throw line, and even had one breakaway dunk and free throw late that elicited a little end zone dance from Smith, and a quick substitution by Pitino.
WKU, badly depleted by injury, did not back down in the second half. The Hilltoppers were outscored only 38-33 after halftime and had only four second-half turnovers until a trio of miscues in the final two minutes. WKU got a team-best 14 points from guard Brandon Harris and 11 each from George Fant and Eddie Alcantara.
Pitino, in all, said he was happy with the team's first-half defensive effort, and the team's work ethic to this point in the season. The Cardinals will have a practice early Sunday, then will get Christmas off.
"I feel very good," Pitino said of his team heading into the break. "I think we have a lot of upside, a lot of improvements to make. They're a great group of guys and play really, really hard for me, and pay attention, and they deserve a good break right now."