|The Cards came on strong in the second half Monday night, showing off that newfound No. 1 ranking. (US Presswire)|
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Chane Behanan sat in the middle of the locker room with a huge black boot on his left foot. Russ Smith had an identical contraption on his right foot, courtesy of a similar and serious ankle injury sustained about a week or so ago. Sitting in a locker, big man Gorgui Dieng had just finished getting a protective bandage removed from his healing left wrist. Backup big man Montrezl Harrell, who logged just four minutes, was nowhere to be found after coach Rick Pitino said he was vomiting before the game.
"We're not even really healthy," Smith said.
"No one has seen our best yet," Behanan added.
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Those aren't phrases the rest of the country wants to hear.
Monday night was the first time that Louisville has ever held the AP's No. 1 ranking in the regular season (it was No. 1 in the final poll of the 2008-09 campaign) -- and the Cardinals locked down the UConn Huskies in the second half and pulled away for an easy 73-58 victory at the Hartford Civic Center.
"That's shocking," senior point guard Peyton Siva said of Louisville's debut at No. 1. "A program with such rich tradition."
Louisville improved to 16-1 with the victory, tying the best start in school history with the 2003-04 team. The Cardinals struggled in the first 20 minutes, largely because Siva was on the bench for 16 of them, saddled with two early fouls. Siva's absence meant Louisville was unable to do what it does better than just about anyone and that's create turnovers into easy transition baskets.
But that all changed with their senior leader, point guard and relentless defender on the court in the second half.
UConn didn't manage a single field goal from the 15:46 mark of the second half until Ryan Boatright connected on a 3-pointer with 6:44 remaining that cut the deficit to 60-47. That's a stretch of more than nine minutes in which the Cardinals defense held two of the nation's most flammable scorer's, Shabazz Napier and Boatright, without a field goal. Smith led the way for Louisville with 23 points, Behanan added 16 points and nine boards and Siva had nine in the second half. Dieng missed a bunch of shots in the paint, but collected 16 rebounds for the second consecutive game.
"We played great when it counted," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
They sure did. The Cardinals outscored UConn 45-24 after the break and held the Huskies to 26 percent shooting from the field and 23 percent from beyond the arc.
Siva found out the Cardinals were ranked No. 1 in the country hours before the game when fellow Murray State star guard Isaiah Canaan congratulated him via text. Louisville was given the top tag by the AP and the Coaches Poll, while we at CBSSports.com begged to differ, placing Pitino's team one notch behind Duke -- which retained the top spot due to its overall body of work. Our reasoning for putting Duke in front of Louisville was fairly simple and sensible: The Blue Devils have a superior resume that includes wins over four ranked teams -- including one against the Cards. Louisville, on the other hand, has just one victory over a team currently ranked. Siva even understood -- and had no issue with being ranked behind the Blue Devils.
"I don't want to be number one, anyway," he said with a smile. "That just means you get the court stormed."
Only if you lose. And this Louisville team shouldn't lose too many games -- as long as it stays healthy. These guys have been banged up and have still managed to come out on top each and every game -- except for one way back in late November without Dieng in the lineup against Duke.
Let's face it: The No. 1 ranking is for the fans, anyway. It doesn't matter now whether the Cardinals are first or second.
"All that matters is where we finish at the end of the season," Dieng said.
Dieng is set to visit the doctor Tuesday and is hopeful he won't have to play with the wrap on his wrist when Syracuse comes to town on Saturday afternoon for a Top 10 clash. Behanan estimates he's probably about 75 percent healthy -- and a clear sign was a couple of missed dunks against the Huskies on Monday night. Smith says he'll slowly creep back close to 100 percent -- and he was still plenty effective on Monday night at less than full-strength. Harrell should be good to go on Saturday against a long 'Cuse frontline.
"We haven't really had our full team yet," Siva said.
This Louisville group has as much quality depth as any team in the nation, it has a terrific leader/point guard in Siva, a big-time scorer in Smith, a rim protector in Dieng -- and guys who have bought into winning with defense. Prior to the start of the game, the team huddled in the back hallway and concluded their chant with, "We're number one."
Duke's resume might be more impressive, but it's difficult to argue with the Cards as the top team in the nation right now.