The problem for Pitino is that he has not had all of his players available to him at full strength at any time during the season. In fact, the Cardinals haven't been even close to full strength. If the Louisville program were a television series, it would be ER. There's no sense in giving a history of the problems – medical and otherwise – that have plagued the team over the past four months. Suffice to say, that at the present time, McGee may be out for the rest of the season and is considering red-shirting after having played in only five games this season, Palacios has played a total of 12, 0, and 3 minutes in Louisville's three conference games, Caracter has not played at all in the last two games as he tries to get back in the coach's good graces, and Jenkins and Padgett are just beginning to see major minutes as they recover from injuries. However, neither of these two experienced veterans is at 100%.
Given this state of affairs, the Cardinals have been a team in search of an identity. Lineups – and roles – have changed frequently as Pitino has experimented to try to gauge which combinations work best. However, it appears that there is now some stability from game to game as the veteran coach has opted for a small, athletic lineup that includes three guards, a small forward, and a center.
With McGee a non-factor due to injury, the expected battle at point guard has turned into the Edgar Sosa show, and the 6'1" freshman has responded admirably as he is averaging 11.3 ppg and 3.1 apg. However, like most freshmen, he has been inconsistent. In the Cardinals' three conference games he scored 5 points in a loss to Notre Dame, 12 in a win over South Florida, and 20 in Saturday's upset victory over Providence. He does a nice job of taking care of the ball as he is averaging only 2 turnovers a game in conference play and has an assist/turnover ratio of 1.8/1.0. Sosa is extremely quick and excels in the open court. He loves to push the ball up-court and create scoring opportunities in transition.
Wauwatosa East's Jerry Smith is now a fixture in the starting lineup. He's averaging a tad over 30 mpg in Louisville's last seven games and has scored in double figures in five of those games with a high of 22 against Miami (FL). During that period he's been on fire from behind the arc as he has shot 19 of 35 from downtown (54.3%). However, he's done more than score as he's also averaging 6.1 rpg during that stretch. Smith's tremendous athleticism shows up on the defensive end of the court as well. He is quick, strong, and aggressive and likes to jump the passing lane. Like Sosa, Smith is at his best in the open court. He will be a handful for MU to defend.
Jenkins' playing time has been sporadic all season, but in Louisville's last two games he played 34 and 36 minutes, respectively. Only one other time all season did he play more than 26 minutes in a game. Always knows as a strong defender, Jenkins was a capable scorer last season playing alongside Taquan Dean. His offensive production is down this year – 5.1 ppg on 35.3% shooting. However, he did score a season-high 14 points against South Florida, a game in which he hit all four three-point attempts.
The star for the Cardinals this year is sophomore Terrance Williams. The 6'6" small forward is averaging 13.3 ppg, though in the three league games he scored 18, 17, and 23 points. He is also the team's leading rebounder at 7.8 rpg, and is averaging 9.0 rpg in his three conference games. He had 17 points and nine boards against USF and 23 points and 12 boards against Providence. Williams is a terrific athlete. He is quick with excellent hops, and he is strong. He will be difficult for MU to match up with now that he is playing the 4, much as McDermott of Providence was hard to match up with. Williams' percentage on treys is only 26.3% for the year, and he's had some horrific long-range shooting games. However, he seems to have discovered his stroke since conference play began as he's nailed 12 of 26 treys (46.2%) in the Cardinals' last three games. Before that, however, he made only 16.7% of his threes.
Padgett, the 6'11" transfer from Kansas, was a McDonalds' All-American, but he has yet to live up to the hype coming out of high school. This season he is averaging only 8.9 ppg and 5.5 rpg in 23.1 mpg. Like Jenkins, his playing time has been inconsistent. He is definitely not the offensive threat he was before injuries caused him to miss the latter part of the 2005-2006 season. Still, he had 16 points and 10 boards against Kentucky earlier this year and recently had 20 points and 8 rebounds against San Francisco. He is also a decent shot blocker though not as intimidating as Hill, Watkins, or Thabeet.
Defensive match-ups for MU could be interesting in this game. If Coach Tom Crean decides to stick with the same starters as the last two games, then James will probably be on Sosa, McNeal on Smith, Matthews on Jenkins, Hayward on Williams, and Barro on Padgett. However, Williams is awfully quick, and it's possible that MU might go to a four-guard lineup for portions of the game with Cubillan on Sosa, James on Jenkins, and either McNeal or Matthews on Williams with the other one on Smith. Burke could get into the mix at the 4 as well, but Williams' quickness could give him problems.
On offense Marquette will have to contend with three-quarter court pressure, which could be a problem because of Louisville's ability to create turnovers. In the half court they've been playing a 2-3 zone, which gave Providence fits. It's a more aggressive zone than either Syracuse's or Providence's even though the Cardinals generally don't trap the man with the ball. Like MU, Louisville's defense fuels its offense. It loves to run the floor in transition, and MU will have to make sure it gets back on defense.
Many people, including quite a few Louisville fans, were writing the Cardinals off after a relatively rough start that included four losses in their first eight games. There is no shame in losing to Arizona, but Pitino's critics were up in arms after home losses to Dayton and UMass.
But Pitino seems to have righted the ship. The Cardinals have been impressive in their last two games. In fact, at least a few Louisville fans apparently think the team has been resurrected from the dead and are talking about making the Sweet 16 or even the Final Four. For now, such talk is premature at the very least, but there's no doubting this game looks a lot more difficult for Marquette now than it did a few weeks ago.
Given the recent history between these two teams – including a number of last second game-winners and James's Hail Mary shot to force overtime last year – no one would be surprised if this game goes down to the wire as well.
**Eric Silver, aka "Silver Warrior" is a regular poster on MarquetteHoops.com and also a contributing writer for CHN – College Hoops Nation.