Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE
Louisville suffered its first loss of the early season, as a second half surge was not enough to down Duke in the finals for the Battle 4 Atlantis.
It lived up to its billing as the most intriguing early season tournament of the college basketball season, capped off by a high-energy final did its best to compete with a busy night of college football.
In the first meeting between Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski since Christian Laettner starred in one of college basketball's most iconic moments, the Louisville Cardinals fell to the Duke Blue Devils 76-71 in the finals of the second annual Battle 4 Atlantis.
Following their first loss of the season, questions about how the puzzle pieces are supposed to fit for the now former No. 2 ranked team will certainly abound over the next week.
The Cardinals were without the services of starting center Gorgui Dieng, who missed the game due to an injured wrist suffered Friday night against Missouri, which left a gaping hole in the Cardinals frontcourt.
In that game, the Cardinals forced the Tigers into 23 turnovers, including eight from Phil Pressey, arguably the game's top point guard. But just 24 hours later against Duke, the Cardinals committed a number of turnover blunders of their own, many which led to Blue Devil points on the other end of the court. That, paired with yielding 23 Duke made free throws on 27 attempts are what did Louisville in tonight.
Was Dieng's absence the deciding factor in the game? It is surely possible that he would have checked Mason Plumlee and clogged the lane for ambitious Duke guards, but his replacement Stephan Van Treese didn't back down from the challenge, his presence just simply wasn't as imposing.
There's no doubt that Rick Pitino's club is dangerous, but that sort of takes on a double-meaning. On one hand, it's clear that Peyton Siva has established himself as a true playmaker - a guy that can can bail his team out of a broken play or force a turnover on and get to the other end of the floor in the snap of a finger. He's nearly impossible to contain for 40 minutes and is taking ownership of this team.
Conversely, the Cardinals are dangerous in that they are combustible, and it starts and ends with Russ Frieken Smith.
The most enigmatic and unpredictable college basketball player in recent memory, Smith took 19 shots Saturday and spent time serving as both a gigantic liability with errant shots and silly fouls, but also as a valuable asset to Pitino with relentless effort at breaking down the Blue Devil defense in the second half.
In one sequence of events, Smith got into the lane with 11 minutes to play and dumped the ball off to Van Treese for an easy dunk, capping off an 11-2 run put Cardinals right back into the game with the momentum fully swung in their favor.
Just seven seconds later, though, Smith committed a selfish reach in foul on Quinn Cook with Duke already in the bonus; a momentum killing head shaker.
With the entire rotation still around from last year , Louisville should have the advantage of entering the season with players having a good sense of their role, instead of working towards that definition come February and March.
On Saturday night, it was Duke who looked like the more polished team. The Blue Devils were sound in their execution in the half court, highlighted by balanced scoring from their five starters, and weathered Louisville's full court press. Louisville's game plan seemed to dissolve when they fell behind, relying on one-on-one dribble penetration from Siva and Smith and hoping for the best.
In a college basketball season that could have a revolving door of top 5 teams, not one program is infallible to defeat or an off night. Everyone has weaknesses, and the difference between an Indiana, Louisville, Duke...enter your favorite top 10 club...could be something as simple as who as the hot hand or makes the fewest mistakes on any given night.
Louisville certainly has the tools to return to the Final Four, but right now, they are not the second best team in the country.
Instead, that distinction will likely be handed over to the team that knocked them off in Atlantis.