LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Tinkering with lineups has its advantages. Players discover things they might not have seen before. University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino has been searching for the right mix since losing power forward Chane Behanan, and in fact used his seventh different starting lineup in Saturday's 87-70 win over Central Florida.
Whether this newest one — with Wayne Blackshear starting as an undersized power forward — is the one he'll settle on will be a matter of performance and matchup potential over the next few games.
But one aspect of the team won't change — the Cardinals' best two-man combination on the court. And no, it's not a backcourt combination, somewhat surprisingly.
It's the combination of Luke Hancock and Montrezl Harrell.
When on the same side of the court, they've been tough to stop in recent games for the Cardinals. Hancock is perhaps the best player on the team at delivering post-entry passes, and Harrell is starting to figure out when he can make an offensive move and when the defense presents an opportunity to pass the ball back out. The resulting two-man game has been increasingly productive.
Together, they are beginning to find a rhythm to playing off the strengths of the other. Over the past seven games, it has been this tandem — not the Cards' starting guards — that has led the team in scoring six times and assists four times.
In that span, Hancock is averaging 16 points per game and Harrell just a shade under 14. Hancock has 24 assists in that span — most of them to Harrell.
"We both just kind of noticed, if I pass to him on the block, if they leave me it's an open shot, and if they don't leave me then he's really able to go to work, so we've tried to exploit that as much as we can," Hancock said. "He knows I'm ready for it. I know he's ready for it. We're on the same page in practice every day, running it and getting it working even better."
It's an important constant for the Cards, who can be streaky at the guard spots and who have been looking for interior offense all season. Hancock and Harrell can run their two-man game from the wing or with Hancock at the top of the key.
Saturday night, Pitino shuffled the Cards yet again, putting Blackshear into the starting lineup in an attempt to play him at the "four" spot without a traditional center on the court.
Part of his reasoning is that Blackshear gives the Cards five players on the court who can score. With Stephan Van Treese, he noted, opposing teams were playing five-on-four on the offensive end. And Mangok Mathiang, he said, was not producing enough blocked shots or rebounds to make it worth living with his other mistakes.
While senior guard Russ Smith scored 27 points, Harrell and Hancock combined for 36 points and 11 assists while Smith and fellow starter Terry Rozier had 31 and 3.
"It works out pretty good for us. We feed off each other," Harrell said. "We've been building on it every day. He knows my game and I know his. I know just about everything about him. If a man turns his head for even a split second I'm getting him the ball and he's going to get into the lane. I even know when he gives that head fake if he's going up or not. The defense might not know it, but I do. I know when he's going to go up with it and when he's going to dump it to me. So I feel like I know his game in and out. He's the same player he was last year, just a lot improved."
Pitino went even further than that in describing Hancock.
"This team can't survive without Luke Hancock," Pitino said. "It can't. Because he makes smart plays. And this is going to sound crazy, but he's the quickest guy with the ball on the team. He goes by everybody. Terry (Rozier) and Chris (Jones) can't do what Luke does — now he's not being guarded by point guards — but he goes by people and makes shots and he's smart. … It's not speed as much as quickness. Because they respect his jump shot so much, he's very ball-quick. You have to play him because of his shot, but he can sell his ball fake very well, and when he gets by he gets to the rim. He's playing very good basketball right now. He's the one guy on the team I'm really happy with."
So Blackshear can't take Hancock's minutes. The rationale for not starting him at the four more was early foul trouble. But after some ineffective bench stints, Pitino has Blackshear on the move again, this time perhaps with a longer engagement at the power forward spot. He hasn't learned the out-of-bounds plays at the position, but that should come, Pitino said.
"You have so many more offensive weapons with Wayne at the four, just like Kyle Kuric was before. We've just got to get him to know the plays," Pitino said.
Against a Central Florida team it beat by 25 in Orlando on New Year's Eve, the Cardinals jumped out to a 20-6 lead in the game's first 7:30, then outscored the Knights by only three the rest of the game.
Russ Smith had 12 points in the game's first 11 minutes, then reverted back to some sophomore year form and didn't start the second half. Pitino said those early points didn't bode well for Smith.
"It's the worst thing in the world that could happen," Pitino said. "It's a nightmare for me, just an awful experience. . . . Russ is just, if you take away what he does, it's going to take away his greatness. But on the other hand, he gets so fired up and so wound up. He visualized tonight that he was going to be Kevin Durant. That's the way he thinks because he plays those video games. . . . When he goes behind his back and has a guy wide open, he has to pass the ball. On the other hand, when he has these flurries, it's great. On Senior Night, I'm going have my second bachelor party."
The lineup is shifting. Pitino is still searching. On Saturday against UCF, the U of L bench was outscored 40-16. But the Cardinals shot 63 percent in the second half. This is the tradeoff Pitino is making — for now. If they can be sloppy and play less than their best and score 87 points, he'll coach for offense until he can get some defense going. The schedule, at the very least, remains conducive to tinkering, without a top 100-ranked opponent until the Cards visit Cincinnati on Feb. 22.
At the very least, Pitino knows two guys who seem to have settled into a mode of offensive consistency. If the Cards keep playing through Hancock and Harrell, good things figure to happen.