Cards need better O vs. struggling Irish

The last time No. 5 Louisville (18-4, 9-1) played Notre Dame (12-10, 3-7) on Jan. 12 the Irish were ranked 13th in the nation and appeared an NCAA Tournament lock. Since Louisville's 87-73 overtime win in Freedom Hall, the Irish have lost seven straight, including a lopsided loss at UCLA last weekend.

While Notre Dame has struggled in the win column recently, Louisville has been sluggish on offense the past few outings. The Cardinals struggled offensively in the second half of a 69-63 win over West Virginia on Jan.31, had their lowest season output – 51 points – in a 17-point loss to UConn Feb. 2 and scored just 19 first half points in a 60-47 win at St. John's on Sunday.

"I think that's who we are," Pitino said. "I don't think there's an offensive consistency from the individual players as well as the unit. But this team wins because of great effort and because they're together. They're not the most offensively harmonious team I've ever coached but it's just who we are."

Pitino said his team continues to work to become more efficient on offense. Though Louisville has been impressive on the road this season, winning at Villanova and Syracuse, there's been a noticeable drop off in the Cardinals offensive production away from home. The Cards average 10 points less per game on the road than they do at Freedom Hall (76-66).

Louisville needs Earl Clark to step us his game.

"We've been striving to get more consistent but it's not there," Pitino said. "We're going to try to win and not worry about it. We just have to keep working hard. As long as your players give great effort that's all that counts."

Perhaps a good sign for Louisville's offense was Jerry Smith's 21 point effort against St. John's. Smith also scored 20 points against West Virginia but was held scoreless in the loss to UConn and went seven straight games without scoring in double figures prior to his performance against the Mountaineers.

"We've been striving for him to do more things – to fight more on defense to put the ball on the floor," Pitino said. "He did more in that game (St. Johns) so hopefully he'll consistently do that."

Pitino benched Smith for Preston Knowles against the Red Storm but the 6-2 junior will be back in the starting lineup against Notre Dame Thursday night.

"Jerry's won the job back," Pitino said. "I wanted to put Terrence Jennings in there over Samardo but he would have none of it. I keep telling them they'll know who I think is the best when the game is on the line - that's who I think is the best."

Still, Pitino said situational matchups will dictate how he rotates his guards in the backcourt. Against Notre Dame's high scoring guards Kyle McAlarney and Tory Jackson, that could mean more of defensive specialists Andre McGee and Preston Knowles. Knowles and McGee helped shut down Notre Dame's backcourt duo in the Cardinals 87-73 overtime win in Louisville last month.

"If we need defense and we've got to get stops you're going to see McGee and Knowles in there," Pitino said. "If we need offense you're going to see Sosa and Smith in there."

If Louisville is to keep pace with Big East leader UConn in the league standing, the Cardinals need consistent performances from junior forward Earl Clark. Clark has been held below his season's scoring and rebounding averages the past four games.

"I think Earl has a very difficult time playing 36-38 minutes," Pitino said. "He wears out and mentally breaks down when he does that. I don't think Jared Swopshire is ready to compete physically in the Big East. We've got to get TJ and Samardo in there and gamble a little bit more. Earl's better when he plays 32 minutes max."

In Louisville's past two games, Clark has hit just 7 of 27 shots, including just 1 of 8 from three-point range. Pitino said the 6-9 Clark can't let his shooting problems affect the other aspects of his game.

"Earl Clark – I think he's the guy that has to be consistent each night out," Pitino said. "He's the guy that's got to get 11 rebounds – he's got to get offensive rebounds. He can't let his jump shot dictate how he plays. He's got to be a great passer. In the next month he's got to play like a professional basketball player and he's got to bring it every single night. He's got to be the difference-maker."

Thursday night, the Cardinals will take a 5-0 road record this season into a hostile environment against a Notre Dame team desperately needing a win. The Irish have dropped their last seven games, including an 89-63 loss at UCLA last weekend.

"We're undefeated on the road so we're a good road team," said Pitino. "We know we're going into a team that is very hungry to win. We played very well at Syracuse and Rutgers and a very good second half against St. John's. We've been good on the road but Notre Dame causes a lot of problems for you."

Louisville has won 10 of their last 11 games heading into Thursday's game against the Irish. In the first meeting between the two teams, Terrence Williams led the Cardinals with 24 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists, while Luke Harangody finished with 28 points and 13 boards for the Irish.

"We're just a good solid basketball team that I'm hoping can improve and get better," Pitino said.

Tip-off is scheduled for 7 pm and will be televised live on ESPN.

Injury Updates
Terrence Williams: "He got chopped down on his wrist and has a really bad bruise," Pitino said. "It is subsiding and we're hoping by the weekend it is 100 percent." Williams will be in the starting lineup against Notre Dame.

Samardo Samuels had his two upper front teeth knocked out by an inadvertent elbow against St. John's. The two teeth were reseated and wired in with a brace at NYU hospital in New York. He did not practice Monday or Tuesday but returned to individual instruction Wednesday and is probable against the Irish.

"He has braces and he's going to have to wear a mouthpiece," Pitino said. "He's going to have to have an extensive root-canal after the season. But he's a pretty tough kid. I don't think it will bother him."

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