The injury-plagued Cardinals have been getting healthy in recent weeks, which has allowed them to develop cohesiveness in practice. That practice time has resulted in improved execution, particularly on offense (UofL has scored at least 77 points in 4 of their last six games, including two games of more than 80), and Louisville has ripped off six straight Big East wins.
Now, fresh off a thrilling 77-74 comeback win over West Virginia Saturday in Morgantown, the Cardinals face one of their biggest challenges this season Monday night when second-ranked Syracuse visits the KFC Yum! Center for an ESPN showdown.
The Orange, one of the deepest and most talented teams in college basketball, have won 25 of 26 games this season. Jim Boeheim's team leads the Big East with a 12-1 record, their only loss at Notre Dame with 7'0 sophomore center Fab Melo out of the lineup. Now with Melo back on the court, Syracuse has ripped off five straight wins entering tonight's contest, including an 85-67 win over UConn Saturday.
If Louisville hopes to win for the eighth straight time against Syracuse, the Cardinals will have to figure out how to beat the Orange's patented 2-3 zone.
"Believe it or not, they're an easy team to have one day [to prepare for] because they play all zone," Pitino said. "It's going to be a great situation for our fans. They're the No. 1 RPI team in the country. It's great for us to face that competition."
Syracuse, perhaps the deepest team in the nation, has 10 players averaging at least 11 minutes per game. While not as deep, Louisville's depth is improving, especially with the addition of 6'5 Wayne Blackshear, a talented freshman who saw his first action of the season against West Virginia.
"We've got depth, they've got depth," Pitino said. "We have great respect for Syracuse but we think but we think we're a good basketball team so we're going to get tested."
Blackshear came off the bench to score 13 points against the Mountaineers, tying Darrell Griffith for the eighth-most points in a Louisville debut. His addition to the lineup allowed Kyle Kuric, who is averaging a team-high 36 minutes per game, more rest. With fresh legs, Louisville was able to turn up their full court pressure and overcome a double digit second half deficit against WVU.
"[West Virginia] was the first time we substituted and didn't lose anything," Pitino said. "Peyton gets in foul trouble, we play Russ [Smith] and Russ played great. Swop and Chane played very well together. And, of course Wayne Blackshear coming in gave us a big lift.
"I thought it helped our pressure - I thought we had fresh bodies. We've played a lot of games where we were the tired team because we had guys playing 37 or 38 minutes. We felt we had our legs all the way to the end."
Though Blackshear is still learning the ropes, Pitino believes his learning curve won't be as steep as a typical freshman because of his understanding for the game.
"The one thing that is evident is he really knows how to play the game," Pitino said. "He still doesn't understand a lot of what we're running and made some mistakes but Wayne Blackshear really understands the game of basketball. His mental capabilities on the floor are terrific. He'll get it quickly because he's got a very high IQ."
With Blackshear back from injury and Louisville ascending the Big East standings, Boeheim anticipates a strong challenge for his Orange.
"They are playing great," Boeheim said of Louisville. "I think they are playing the best in the league right now. It will be a tremendous challenge to go down there on Monday night. This is an extremely tough 10-day period. We had to go down to New York, and then play Georgetown and Connecticut. Now, we have to go play Louisville. It will be a great game Monday night."
KEYS FOR LOUISVILLEWhat are the keys for Louisville to beat No. 2-ranked Syracuse for the eighth straight game? InsideTheVille.com examines:
Syracuse relies heavily on forcing turnovers and getting out on the break for easy transition baskets. The Orange force their opponents into 17.4 turnovers per game, including nearly 10 steals. Louisville has been prone to turnovers this season, including a season-high 24 at Seton Hall. If Louisville hopes to knock off Syracuse, the Cardinals will have to limit turnovers against the Orange's stingy defense.
Louisville will have to make outside shots against Syracuse's tough 2-3 zone defense. The Orange are long on the perimeter and have a formidable shot blocker (Melo) in the middle. The Cardinals have had success historically attacking the Orange zone and it will take another strong shooting performance to pull off an upset. The key? Ball movement. Louisville must attack the Orange zone inside/out, then find and make open perimeter shots.
Crash the Boards
If Syracuse has a chink in the armor, it's rebounding. For the season, the Orange are minus .06 on the boards. Georgetown had Syracuse on the ropes before losing in overtime last week primarily because they abused the Orange on the boards by 17. The Hoyas hurt Syracuse with 23 offensive rebounds, and Louisville must attack the offensive glass with success to beat the Orange. Chane Behanan has been relentless on the offensive glass recently and the Cardinals will need another strong effort from their 6'7 freshman forward.
Syracuse might be the best transition team in college basketball. Sure, the Orange are dangerous after a turnover on the break, but they really excel changing ends after a defensive rebound. Louisville's transition defense must be on-point to limit easy transition buckets for the Orange.