Can Cards take next step?

Louisville, 0-5 vs. Top 25 teams this season, must improve in two key areas to take the next step and win close games against ranked opponents. examines what Louisville must do to get over the hump....

Louisville's showdown Monday against second-ranked Syracuse was a measuring stick for the No. 18-ranked Cardinals.  Obviously, Rick Pitino's team came up on the short end of the stick, falling 52-51 to the Orange.

With five games remaining in the regular season, one thing seems clear about Pitino's injury-riddled Cards - they can play with any team in the country, evidenced by narrow losses to No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Syracuse and No. 9 Georgetown.

The question now for Louisville is whether or not they can take the next step and figure out how to beat those top teams?  Against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 this season, the Cardinals are 0-5. Three of those five losses - Syracuse, Georgetown and Notre Dame - came by three points or less. Louisville lost to the top-ranked Wildcats 69-62 on the road.

Two major issues have prevented Louisville from winning close games against ranked foes this season - Free throw shooting and turnovers.

Against Syracuse, poor free throw shooting (12 of 21) directly cost Louisville a victory. In narrow Big East losses to Georgetown and Notre Dame (2OT), Louisville made just 10 of 17 (58 percent) and 17 of 27 (63 percent), respectively. In a three-point loss to Georgetown, the Hoyas made eight more FT's than Louisville. Notre Dame made five more free throws in a two-point victory at the KFC Yum! Center.

If Louisville hopes to take the next step and start winning close games against Top 25 teams, they must shoot free throws like they did at West Virginia, hitting all 10 second half free throws, instead of missing free opportunities like happened against Syracuse, Georgetown and Notre Dame.

The other key for Louisville to turn the corner is receiving more efficient play from guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith - the Cardinals two primary ball handlers.  In the loss to Syracuse, Siva and Smith combined for nine turnovers.  Those turnovers were a major reason Louisville fell short against the Orange.

Louisville also committed more turnovers than assists in losses to Kentucky (14-6), Notre Dame (18-9), and Syracuse (16-10) and had 17 turnovers (17 assists) in a setback against Marquette. Pitino's Cardinals simply don't have the physical talent to overcome those miscues.

For Louisville to begin knocking off top teams and advance past the NCAA Tournament first round for the first time in three seasons, Siva, Smith and the Cardinals must value possession of the basketball better than they have in several narrow losses this season, including Syracuse earlier this week.

Louisville has made significant progress since losing 5 of 7 games last month. To take the next step and beat the top teams in the Big East (and nationally) the Cardinals, who have won 7 of their last 9 games, need to tighten up their game down the stretch, converting at the foul line, while valuing possession of the basketball. Because of an assortment of injuries, Louisville doesn't have considerable margin for error.  If Pitino's bunch improves execution in these two areas they'll be a factor come tournament-time.

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