Game 7: December 5, 2006
Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden
Louisville is looking to return to the NCAA's after finishing last season with an overall 21-13 record and an invitation to the NIT. A win over a quality opponent such as Arizona would do the trick in setting the stage for a turnaround season. Louisville graduated four seniors from its 2005 Final Four team and paid the price last year as they had to face the rigors of the Big East schedule with an inexperienced starting five. This year, the Cardinals go 10 deep and will look to trap and press the Wildcats the moment the ball goes up. Louisville has easy victories over Northwestern State and Sacramento State and suffered a narrow defeat at the hands of Dayton, 68-64, on the 24th of November.
Arizona has won five straight and will play its second consecutive neutral site game against a worthy opponent. The Wildcats defeated a talented Illinois team last Saturday by overcoming a 33-17 first half deficit. The Wildcats are led by their five starters who are all averaging over 30 minutes a game. Arizona traveled by charter bus from Phoenix to Tucson after Saturday's game and then took a flight from Tucson to New York Sunday morning. Upon returning home from the Jimmy V Classic, Arizona will then board a flight to San Diego on Friday to take on the Aztecs Saturday afternoon. The road weary Wildcats may be ripe for an upset against upstart Louisville.
Here's how I think the teams will play this one out:
If Arizona's first six games have proven one thing, it's that this Arizona team will have no problem scoring the basketball. With each game, Arizona's passing and movement without the ball is constantly improving. Budinger and Williams are beginning to gel together on the court while Shakur seems to be gelling with all of his teammates. Shakur is averaging a Pac-10 leading 8.3 assists per game. He also increased his scoring average to 12.2 PPG after dropping 16 on the Illini. Budinger leads the Cats with 19.8 PPG and is second amongst all Pac-10 scorers. Radenovic is close behind at 18.2 PPG while Williams is averaging 17 per contest. McClellan rounds out Arizona's starting five with 14.3 PPG and 5.2 rebounds.
Louisville is capable of putting up big offensive numbers as they've nearly hit the century mark in both their wins. The wins did come against inferior opponents, though, and that could be a problem as Arizona will clearly be the most difficult team the Cardinals have faced thus far. Louisville will look to speed up the game to try and tire Arizona's starting five. In the transition game, expect the Cardinals to pull the trigger on the three-ball if it's there. If it isn't, expect their forwards to attack the basket in an effort to get Arizona into foul trouble. Like Arizona, Louisville has players who can score at all five positions. They also have players with the physical tools to match Arizona's athleticism.
OFFENSIVE EDGE: ARIZONA
Arizona is no stranger to New York, having played in Madison Square Garden several times in the past decade. While most of Arizona's players on this roster have yet to play in basketball's mecca, Olson's experience in preparing his teams for trips like this one should have a calming affect on guys like Budinger, Wise and Hill. I mention Wise and Hill because I expect them to get into this game, assuming Louisville doesn't jump out to a big lead as Illinois did. While Louisville has the athletes to match up with Arizona, Arizona has proven that they can put up points against any defense in any arena while Louisville hasn't proven that they too can score on just anyone yet.
Illinois shot just over 50.0% against the Wildcats on Saturday but considering that the Illini had made 15 of their first 20 field goals (75.0%) that end of game stat is more a testimony to Arizona's defensive efforts in the final 30 minutes than Illinois' offensive output. Arizona showed much more man-to-man against Illinois and that trend may have to continue against a Louisville team that will not hesitate to shoot the three. If Louisville is moving the ball well along the perimeter and getting open looks, expect Olson to pull the Wildcats out of their zone defenses to put more pressure on Louisville's outside shooters.
Like all Rick Pitino teams, Louisville is going to press and trap and press and trap some more. If Arizona beats the press, Louisville will fall back into a variety of defenses – oftentimes some variation of a zone. The Cardinals go two deep at every position and will look to force Shakur and McClellan into giving the ball up early in the backcourt. Louisville is averaging six steals a game and the Wildcats are turning the ball over 14 times per game, which could be a lethal combination for Arizona if they get too careless or are baited into taking quick shots.
DEFENSIVE EDGE: ARIZONA
Louisville is playing only their fourth game of the season while Tuesday's contest will be Arizona's seventh. At this point in the season, playing solid team defense is much more a priority for the Wildcats than it is for Louisville who is still dusting off the cob webs. I don't doubt that Louisville will create some turnovers that will lead to easy transition buckets. The difference here is that all five of Arizona's starters can handle the ball, are all good passers and most importantly, can finish. If the Wildcats can break the initial traps, they should have the numbers to attack the basket.
Just like their point production, the Wildcats are rebounding from all five spots. Down low, Budinger, Radenovic and Williams are all average over six boards a game with the freshman leading the way at 7.7 per game. Arizona's guards aren't too shabby either. McClellan is pulling down 5.2 per game (mainly on the offensive end) and Shakur is averaging 3.5. Add them all up and throw in a few extra rebounds from the bench players and the Wildcats are averaging just under 40 boards a night.
The similarities between these teams continue as Louisville, for the most part, rebounds by committee. Do everything forward Juan Palacios is leading the team with an impressive 9.0 rebounds while also tossing in 13.7 points and 2.7 assists per game. His primary support down low will come from David Padgett who is average almost five boards per night. Padgett, a one time Arizona recruit, has been plagued by knee injuries and will play limited minutes. However, when he's on the floor, his hard-nosed play could be disruptive.
REBOUNDING EDGE: EVEN
If either team pulls away in the rebounding margin, they could very likely pull away in the game itself. I expect the rebounding to be fairly even with both teams getting their share of offensive put backs and defensive rebounds that lead to breakouts. Both teams should also get fairly good looks at the basket if they play an up tempo, open court style that everyone is expecting. If they do, expect a lot of lay ups and wide open shots on the perimeter putting every rebound at a premium.
Shakur is an east coast guy and this will be one of his last chances to play in front of friends and family who'll be making the commute from Philly to NYC. Louisville will challenge Shakur and if they can bait him into over penetrating and dribbling into double teams, the senior point guard will struggle. However, I expect Shakur to be much smarter with the ball and attack Louisville's press before the traps can be set up. If he does this, expect Shakur to have a game more reminiscent of his two highlight performances in last year's NCAA tournament.
Arizona should be able to pass over the Louisville press and if they can break the initial traps, they could have numbers all night long once they cross half court. It'll be key for the Wildcats to not be tempted to take quick shots where teammates are not yet in a position to attack the offensive glass. If they are wise in their shot selection, they'll be able to score in bunches against Louisville's gambling defense.
Louisville's freshman center, Derrick Caracter, will make his long awaited debut tonight. The one-time five-star recruit goes 6'9", 275 and will pose a challenge for Arizona's Radenovic. Similarly, if Caracter tries to get physical with Radenovic, the shifty and savvy Arizona senior may be able to bait the freshman into some early fouls. Regardless, this game won't be decided down low as both teams are expected to push the tempo.
I doubt either team will reach the century mark in points, but the winner will come close.
ARIZONA 96 LOUISVILLE 85