ORLANDO, Fla. (WDRB) -- For the University of Louisville basketball team, it was time for just a bit of soul searching. It had just lost to arch-rival Kentucky. It had just lost power forward Chane Behanan, a key part of two straight Final Four teams.
As the Cardinals headed for Florida, there were two primary messages.
Rick Pitino's message to his team was that it can't out-muscle people. It has to move the ball. The Cardinals responded with 28 assists to run away from Central Florida 90-65 in the first American Athletic Conference game for both teams on Tuesday.
"In both of our losses, we tried to get into a physical, muscle game, and we're going to lose that battle with this team," Pitino said. "We are a quick, passing, motion team. And that's what we were tonight."
The Cardinals jumped to a 20-4 lead out of the gate, and might never have looked back if not for a first-half lull when the ball stopped moving and the team jacked up five straight missed threes without moving the ball effectively. Once they got back to doing their thing, they ran away again.
But the bigger question, at least from fans and media, to U of L players, revolved around the mood of the team after losing Behanan. He was a favorite of his teammates. He didn't have complete seasons as a freshman or a sophomore. Note -- at the end of last season, it seemed as if he'd be supplanted by Montrezl Harrell in the starting lineup at any time, and even took himself out of the Big East Tournament championship game in favor of Harrell.
But in the biggest games, he played his biggest. The Cards wouldn't have beaten Florida in the 2012 Elite Eight without him. In the second halves of the Final Four games against Wichita State and Michigan last season, he had 24 points and 17 rebounds.
For that loss, senior captain Russ Smith set the tone, and described the mood of the team.
"It's just us," Smith said. "I'm from Brooklyn, and what happens there is it's just yourself, no matter how bad your environment is, you either make it out or you're not. This is what we have, and we have to either make it out, or have a bad season. I think the guys understand that. And I'm trying to make that kind of a point of emphasis with the guys. No matter what, we have players and we still can turn the season around."
He noted that the Cards had injuries two years ago. They overcame adversity last season.
"I'm not new to losing players," Smith said. "We've been losing guys since my freshman year with injuries. Guys going down, dropping like flies. And it's tough. But you just have to make up for it, play harder. Guys have to be more cohesive, and tonight was one of the more cohesive games we've played."
Smith finished with 24 points and 9 assists. Chris Jones had five points and seven assists. Terry Rozier had 11 points and five assists. The Cardinals blocked a season-high nine shots and made 14 of 27 three-pointers, including 9 of 14 in the second half.
Montrezl Harrell, after shooting just twice against Kentucky, got 10 shots on Tuesday and made seven of them.
"I would say (Behanan's dismissal) puts a little extra on me," Harrell said. "I've got to be a leader for these guys. I was on the Final Four team, the Big East Championship team, I was part of that run last year, so I just have to let guys know that we're going to be okay. We just have to come together as a team and get ready to work."
Rozier said the main message after the Kentucky loss was to move the ball.
"You saw that game, the ball stayed in the point guards' hands really, and that's something we watched on film and made a point to come out tonight and get the ball moving," he said. "These last two practices have been intense. Everybody is a little more focused, taking a little more responsibility on themselves."
There were still some struggles at the small forward spot. Wayne Blackshear picked up some early fouls and played only 18 minutes in the game, including some second-half time at power forward, which he's going to see more of. Luke Hancock had a rough start shooting, and rushed several first-half threes before finding the range in the second half.
The signs of trying to shake things up were evident from Hancock. He shaved his beard. Teammate Stephan Van Treese told him to get rid of the T-shirt he wears under his jersey.
"He's not as buff as I am, but he can pull it off," Van Treese said.
Then midway through the first half, Hancock's jersey was ripped in half when he fell out of bounds, and he had to put on a new one -- No. 32. He made 3 out of 4 threes in the second half after the number change and finished with 16 points.
"Luke saw we had a great lead, and Luke, one of the smartest players I've coached, killed us, got them on the break taking quick shots," Pitino said. ". . . Then finally, he got out of his slump by waiting for the open shots from ball movement. ... When the ball moves side to side, then you see guys start to shoot it better because they get the ball stepping in."
The Cards also got their best game of the season from Van Treese, who had six points, six rebounds and four blocked shots. Pitino spoke with Van Treese before the game
"That's what we expected of Stephan Van Treese," Pitino said. "He's kind of been watching the sand in the hour glass run out. I had a co-writer and wrote this terrific book called 'The One-Day Contract' and we talked about that."
In the end, Pitino said, playing without Behanan is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Then he reached down to knock on a table and noted that the biggest problem now would be injury. The Cards will spend New Year's Day taking in some attractions in Orlando before returning back to Louisville on Thursday.
"We all felt sad for Chane," Pitino said. "But the one thing about life is that it must go on. You must focus in on your job. There are so many things you have to do between the lines that you can't worry about what happens outside the lines."