The Cardinals run at number one is done.
After ascending to the top of the polls last Monday, the Louisville Cardinals men's basketball team took a slide in this week's polls; they sit at fifth in both the AP and Coaches Polls after an ugly loss at home against Syracuse on Saturday.
Ugly? Not in score, but in just how it went down.
The Cardinals lost their second game of the season and their first in Big East conference play at the hands of then sixth (and now third) ranked Syracuse, 68-70.
The game was back and forth, and it started with the Orange jumping out to a 6-0 lead. They would hold a lead until near the halfway mark of the first half. At the 10:26 mark, Louisville sophomore guard Kevin Ware hit a triple to give the Cardinals their first lead, 19-18. The Cardinals would even start building a lead of their own, up by as much as seven, 32-25 at the 4:23 mark. But the Orange would come marching right back, chipping away until the teams went into halftime deadlocked 38-38.
The back and forth continued in the second half. Louisville jumped out to as much as an eight point lead in the first five minutes, only to see Syracuse again chip away for a tie by the ten minute mark. Five minutes later, Syracuse had built a four point lead. At 2:19, Louisville tied it back up and Syracuse called time.
So why would you call this game ugly? Sounds like a great game!
The final minute would be a gut-wrenching turn of events for Louisville fans.
Up two with just 0:54 seconds left, sophomore forward Chane Behanan would commit a foul to put Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams to the free throw line.
The first, good. One point game.
The second, no good! Louisville gets the rebound, and the Cardinals call time to settle things down and set up a solid play to try to seal the game.
QUICK RECAP: Less than a minute left, Louisville up one, with the ball.
That is when the wheels fell off.
A few seconds after the in-bound, Peyton Siva's pocket is picked, and Syracuse is headed the other way for a breakaway dunk, Syracuse leads by one.
No panic yet for the Cards, down 68-69.
At the 0:15 second mark, sophomore Wayne Blackshear is blocked on a layup attempt. A foul, and we're headed the other way for free throws.
Syracuse leaves the door open again, as Carter-Williams again connects on only one of two free throws.
Louisville races back down the floor, the pass goes in to junior center Gorgui Dieng, who is stripped on his way to the basket with 0:07 seconds left.
In a nutshell, it's nearly impossible as a Cardinal fan, originally up by one with thirty seconds left, and with a couple of solid opportunities later, not to think that Louisville didn't choke. Granted, they played a great team, it was a close, hard fought game, and no team should realistically every expect to go unblemished in Big East play - but this game just felt like Louisville was ready to put it away. A couple of times.
And Syracuse constantly left the door open. Carter-Williams was practically the only person on the Syracuse stat sheet for the last minute and a half of the game. He played into Louisville's chances at winning, including a missed shot at 1:25, making only one of two from the free throw line not once, not twice, but THREE times (0:54, 0:25, 0:13). But he also killed the Cardinals on his steal and breakaway dunk that would serve as the deciding margin when Syracuse went up 69-68.
Only one Cardinal scored in double-figures in the game, junior guard Russ Smith. He led all scorers with 25 points on 8-of-18 from the field and 7-for-7 from the charity stripe.
But the shocking factor in Louisville's loss was the offensive ineffectiveness of Dieng and Siva. Dieng was just 1-of-5 with four points in the game, while Siva was an atrocious 1-of-9 for just three points. Siva, the team's best free throw shooter this season, got to the line zero times. His game was just off all night, although he did manage four steals on the defensive end. He wasn't in significant foul trouble, which is usually the root of his problems; he only had one assist to go with his one made shot. Normally if Siva isn't scoring, he's distributing - and he did neither, as well as not making it to the free throw line.
So what makes the game scary for Louisville fans? Outside of Siva's uncharacteristic "missing in action" performance, Louisville relatively played their game. They didn't turn the ball over a lot, but they did turnover Syracuse, winning that battle 9-16. There was no serious advantage on free throws, both teams took 20 shots. Syracuse narrowly won the rebound battle 35-31, but Louisville crashed the offensive glass better at 14-11. Louisville had 12 steals to Syracuse's 5.
So in a nutshell, unlike the Duke loss in which many thought that the missing and injured Gorgui Dieng might have swung the result, Louisville was at full strength, and they played their game. And they lost. Unlike last Monday's blowout win at Connecticut that sparked many to say Louisville looked nearly unbeatable when they are at the top of their game, Syracuse showed that Louisville can be beaten. And they did it in Louisville.
It's beginning to look increasingly like Louisville is one of the top teams in the nation - but it's also looking like they might be part of a second-tier group along with Arizona, Butler, Florida, Gonzaga and Indiana - and behind a group that contains Duke, Kansas, Michigan and Syracuse. Exactly what separation exists between those two groups and even within those two groups is yet to be seen; but something Louisville can actually look forward to despite unbalanced scheduling is a chance for revenge against the Orange; they will have the chance to spoil Syracuse's run on March 2nd.
Louisville next game is actually taking place as we speak - they are on the road against Villanova tonight. Villanova enters the game 11-7 on the season and just 2-3 in Big East play, but you can definitely expect them to come out firing against a reeling Louisville team (in fact, they lead by two at halftime). Here's hoping that Louisville can have a second half reminiscent of their Connecticut blowout to begin last week.