Thursday February 19th, 2015

The news came at an ill-advised time. Heading into one of its most strenuous road tests at Syracuse, Louisville's makeup changed dramatically. Chris Jones, the Cardinals' starting point guard, would not be playing because of a suspension due to an unspecified violation of team rules. Just like that, Louisville's job at the Carrier Dome got a whole lot harder.

Jones is the catalyst to what the Cardinals do in so many facets, but Louisville isn't ranked No. 12 in the country by accident. There are still talented players to help compensate for Jones' absence.

Right? Maybe not.

After Louisville's 69-59 loss at Syracuse on Wednesday night, there exists the very real possibility that the Cardinals could find themselves in deep trouble if Jones' suspension is an extended one. Jones did not make the trip to Syracuse for the game and the university did not say how long his suspension might be.

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The problem for Louisville is that if Jones is not going to be a part of this team for the immediate future, the Cardinals will have to adjust accordingly. That goes without saying for any team dealing with the loss of a key player, but for the Cardinals, it's a bit different: This is not an overly deep team.

Freshman Quentin Snider started in Jones' place against the Orange, scoring 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting from the floor. That's the most significant action that Snider had seen since Dec. 30 against Long Beach State, a game that was never in doubt and one the Cardinals won by nearly 20 points.

But Snider is an unproven commodity. Can he handle the final five games of the ACC regular season? The final two games against ranked opponents in Notre Dame and Virginia?

What makes Jones so good is that he's the catalyst on offense, dishing out 3.7 assists per game. He's the catalyst on defense, too, helping orchestrate the Cardinals' press, which was almost nonexistent against the Orange.

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Head coach Rick Pitino has intimated that Jones might not return for the remainder of the season. He told reporters before the Syracuse game that, "There are things outside of my hands, that when somebody does wrong that is not related to our basketball team."

That doesn't sound promising for Jones. Or Louisville.

Pitino will have to find answers elsewhere throughout the roster. You could see him tinkering with options in the second half against the Orange. Seven-foot freshman Anas Mahmoud played six minutes. Walk-on David Levitch played 16 minutes. Sophomore Anton Gill saw sporadic minutes, as did Mangok Mathiang.

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But it was the other four regular starters who did all the heavy lifting. Without Jones finding Louisville's shooters on the floor, defenses are going to begin loading up on Montrezl Harrell. (Harrell was triple-teamed repeatedly in the second half, scoring 15 points, but only taking 10 shots.) Terry Rozier scored 17 points, but needed 18 shots to do it.

That is not a recipe for success.

Snider emerging as a capable distributor would certainly help expedite things and relieve some tension if Jones doesn't return soon. Rozier and Harrell will be asked to up their already strenuous workload, but opponents will begin to double-down on that dynamic duo if there are no credible threats elsewhere. Pitino though, also has to be wary of running them down this late in the season.

Both players played 40 minutes against the Orange. Five regular-season games, the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament still loom for this team. A nightly 40-minute-a-game clip is a lot to ask.

It's possible that Pitino could be overselling Jones' suspension and punishment. He wouldn't be the first coach to try sending a message to a misbehaving player, but it doesn't sound like that is the case. Effectively, Louisville needs to figure out how to win without him.

Otherwise, nights like Wednesday in Syracuse could become commonplace.

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