LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville basketball bench has been a weapon all season -- but over the past two weeks, and especially in the Big East Tournament -- it has bludgeoned people.
U of L's reserves outscored their counterparts 75-25 in the Big East Tournament, thanks to big games off the bench from Luke Hancock and Montrezl Harrell.
Less statistically significant but no less a major piece of the bench, Kevin Ware has emerged to play valuable stretches since Cardinals coach Rick Pitino moved him to point guard.
"A lot of people talk about depth as a luxury," Pitino said. "But you can't look at it that way. You have to develop it. Everybody has the same number of players. But guys have to buy into it and you have to be willing to use them."
Piece by piece, U of L's bench has come online to become a significant factor late in the season. Nine players averaged double-digit minutes during the Big East Tournament.
1). Luke Hancock? What can you say about him? He has become a three-point threat on a team that thought it didn't have one. He is shooting 43.8 percent from beyond the arc, and has started to become more assertive going to the basket. His 17 free-throws in the Big East Tournament (he made 14) were second on the team to Russ Smith's 20.
Hancock also has improved defensively. He came up with some big steals in the Garden, and has become a capable containment defender.
"He's a cool customer when it comes to being on the court. It says something when you name someone captain and he never plays in uniform. That shows how much confidence you have in him," Pitino said. ". . . When I asked Jim Larranaga (Hancock's former coach at George Mason), I said, tell me about Luke. He said, 'If you need someone to take a shot under pressure, he's your man. If you need someone to take a shot at the end of the game, he's your man. If you need someone to grab a rebound, he's your man.' I said, 'What about defense?' He said, 'He's not your man.' But he's really improved his defense. It's come a long way."
2). Stephan Van Treese. He proved his worth early when he stepped in for the injured Gorgui Dieng early in the season, stood toe-to-toe with Duke's Mason Plumlee, and steadily has made big plays whenever he's called upon. Pitino went away from him for a stretch early in the season, but there were two games in the Big East Tournament when he, not Chane Behanan, was the power forward on the floor in the crucial minutes.
"Stephan knows his role and what he can do well," Pitino said. "And what he can't do well, he doesn't try to do. He's our best rebounder and our best screener. We have total confidence in him."
A big second-half tip-in against Syracuse was one of the plays that opened the floodgates for U of L.
3). Kevin Ware. If you look at his stat line, you may not catch the significance of what he's doing for the Cards. He scored only four points in the Big East Tournament, but everybody on the team would tell you his contribution was major. When he comes in for Peyton Siva, it gives the Cardinal offense more length on top, and his ability to get the team into its offense is providing some valuable rest for the senior captain.
But more than that, Syracuse guard Brandon Triche actually called Ware a "defensive upgrade" from Siva, particularly against teams with taller guards.
4). Montrezl Harrell. He gives the Cards more length on the interior, which is difficult for opponents to deal with, particularly when Dieng remains in the game. He can now play either the power forward or center spot, and in the Big East title game, showed off a new free-throw form and made a couple of jumpers.
Whether he can deliver those things or not, if he comes in and makes a consistent contribution, it gives the Cards a spark offensively. He's been slower to learn Pitino's defensive principles, but as he improves those, his playing time has grown. In the Big East Tournament, he averaged 15 minutes per game.
On the season, U of L's bench has averaged 21 points per game and outscored opponents 21 to 13.2.
"This is what we want, every time somebody comes off the bench, they make something good happen in the game," Hancock said. "That's a fun way to play. Every time somebody new comes in, the guys get fired up to see what they're going to do, and they're excited to show what kind of a difference they can make. So hopefully, we can keep that going."
North Carolina A&T, which will face U of L in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, plays eight players double-figure minutes, but coach Cy Alexander says he has to account for U of L's ability to play a long rotation.
"They have a lot of quality guys, and we're used to playing a lot of guys," he said. "It's just another thing they bring to the table, another thing you have to be ready to deal with."