LOUISVILLE — The whole of Rick Pitino's Louisville squad during its 11-1 start has been greater than the sum of its parts.
That theory has been tested severely the past couple of weeks, and it took another blow with Pitino's announcement Thursday that sophomore forward Rakeem Buckles would miss the next two weeks with a finger injury suffered in practice.
Buckles is the Cards' leading rebounder at 7.5 per game and is also averaging 8.2 points.
Pitino admits it's a blow as U of L prepares to face No. 11 Kentucky at the KFC Yum Center on Friday, as the length of the 6-foot-7, 200-pound Buckles made him the most likely candidate to match up with UK's Terrence Jones up front.
That adds to a laundry list of walking wounded. Jared Swopshire, the lone returning starter, has been out with a groin injury that Pitino said will probably keep him sidelined the rest of the year. Forward Mike Marra (ankle) and guard Elisha Justice (concussion) have missed multiple games and will be in street clothes against UK.
The fact that Louisville hasn't been reliant on one or two players has helped it keep humming along despite the personnel losses. Five Cards have led the team in scoring this season, and Louisville is coming off its two most impressive offensive outputs (a 114-82 win at Western Kentucky followed by a 104-74 win over Morgan State) without Marra, Justice and Swopshire.
"We're used to it now," Pitino said. "It really doesn't affect us mentally as much as you may think. It will affect us physically, obviously, (Buckles) being the leading rebounder, but it doesn't affect us mentally because we're used to all the injuries."
The Cards don't have a certified NBA lottery prospect on their roster, and not one player earned any sort of pre-season All-Big East Conference recognition. However, Louisville is capable of hitting opponents from different angles. Of the players available against UK, Preston Knowles, Peyton Siva, Chris Smith, Kyle Kuric and Terrence Jennings have all scored 15 or more points in a game. Knowles is the closest thing to a go-to guy that Louisville has, averaging a team-high 15.2 points and coming off a career-high 31-point performance against Morgan State.
Pitino said that the term "go-to guy" can be misguided.
"I think the reason there's a different scorer each night is predicated by the defense by the other team," he said. "It's some nights Kuric's getting more shots, some nights Preston's getting more shots. You've got to take what the defense gives you. I think they can all shoot the ball. I don't think we have, that expression 'go-to guy,' I think you've got to really use that for D-Wade or LeBron or Kobe. We don't have that type of basketball player."
Smith, a transfer from Manhattan and the younger brother of Denver Nuggets guard J.R. Smith, has provided a boost. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, he starts up front in Louisville's small lineup and has more than held his own, averaging 8.7 points and 3.8 rebounds while leading the Big East in three-point percentage (.522).
"That's where toughness comes in," Smith said. "It's not the size of the man; it's his heart, right?"
The Cards have shot a sizzling 33-for-63 from three-point range in their last two games, but Smith said he expects Kentucky to zero in on the Cards on the perimeter.
"They're going to try and jump up in our face and that's where we have to use the other skills we're taught like up-faking and driving," he said. "But we'll get our threes off, we'll get them off. If one player has an off day, not every player will."