In many ways, No. 6 Louisville appears vulnerable.
Then again, so is No. 20 Vanderbilt.
Injuries have limited the Cardinals (6-0) from breezing through their non-conference slate. The Commodores (5-2), while also missing one of their key pieces, have been hindered by turnovers and, recently, less-than-productive play from their bench.
Both teams will be put to the test as part of the BIG EAST/SEC Challenge on Friday in Louisville (8 p.m., ESPN). It is the first meeting between the schools since 1994. They missed meeting in second round of the NCAA Tournament last March in Denver as each was upset in the opening round.
“This time of year you see a lot of great matchups in college basketball and certainly this will be another one,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “It should be a great challenge for our guys and we’re looking forward to it.
Louisville has struggled to put away teams due to its lack of depth. Defending Division II national champ Bellarmine lost to the Cards by just eight points and Ohio suffered a five-point setback.
Injuries have been an issue all season and four players missed Louisville's game Monday against Long Beach State. They have received a lift with the return of point guard Peyton Siva (concussion) for the last two games.
“We don’t really speak about the injuries. We just go about our business and work on the next opponent,” Pitino said. “We stay a little bit more half-court than we have in the past.”
Even without a full-strength, fullcourt press, the Cardinals still have played stifling defense. Opponents are shooting just 33.2 percent overall and 25.3 percent on 3-pointers.
“They do a great job of defending the 3,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “They are absolutely phenomenal at running you off that 3-point line. They are not going to give you a rhythm 3. If you do, it is because they have broken down somehow or some mistake has occurred.”
The Cardinals also create many offensive opportunities from their defense, forcing 17 turnovers a game with 52 steals. That concerns Stallings, whose team averages 15.1 turnovers and has allowed its opponents 67 steals.
“They are great defensively — I mean great,” Stallings said. “They take your mistakes and turn them into points. They have a strength that is a weakness to us. That is a burden in the matchup. Everything about them defensively is somewhat problematic.”
In their two losses — to Cleveland State and Xavier — the Commodores committed 39 turnovers, which turned into 44 points.
Both setbacks also exposed some flaws in the bench play. The reserves were outscored 42-16 in and against Xavier they let a 10-point second-half lead vanish in 82 seconds. At one point during that stretch, Stallings had two freshmen and two sophomores on the floor.
“They'll be all right. They are young players,” Vanderbilt starting forward Jeffery Taylor said. “When you are young, you'll make mistakes sometimes. It was just a little unlucky that a lot of mistakes happened in a row.”
Even so, Stallings said moving forward he might consider how many reserves he throws on the floor at one time.
“I’ve got to be careful with how I rotate them in,” he said. “I’ve got to do a better job of not having the floor covered with guys that haven’t been in very much.”
Though the injury bug hasn’t bit Vanderbilt as badly as Louisville, the Commodores are definitely a different team without 6-foot-11 center Festus Ezeli. He remains out of a practice with a sprained right knee and Stallings didn’t shed any light on when he might be back.
Ezeli suffered the injury two weeks before the season, and the early indications were he might be back during a three-game homestand from Dec. 17-21.
His presence in the paint has been missed, especially against Xavier on Monday. The Musketeers outrebounded Vanderbilt 54-33 and grabbed 25 offensive rebounds.
Another performance like that would not only leave the Commodores vulnerable inside — but susceptible to another loss and perhaps bounce them out of the Top 25 rankings.
“That was extremely disappointing,” Taylor said. “We just didn't rebound like we know we can. There was a bunch of times in the game where we thought we had the game won and they just made plays. It is definitely a game we wished we could have back.”