So, here we are, in mid-February, and the Cardinals come to Marquette for a rematch. Having beaten Louisville at their place, playing them at home should not be much of a problem, right? Wrong.
A great deal has changed in the intervening weeks, particularly in the last week. Seven days ago, MU was soundly beaten at Georgetown and then lost to DePaul by five this past Wednesday. Marquette has not been shooting well, and its defense has been spotty at best.
Louisville, however, played solid basketball the past two games. It crushed South Florida by 20 at home, then dominated league-leading Pittsburgh on the road, defeating the Panthers by 13 in a game that wasn't as close as the score suggests.
Pitino has gone back to a bigger lineup with Palacios having recovered sufficiently from injuries to start. Williams has moved back to the 3, and Tosa East product, Jerry Smith, is once again coming off the bench.
Overall, this is the first time all season that Pitino has been able to go nine deep as he'd hoped to do before injuries and other problems cut into the number of available players. Padgett, Palacios, senior guard Brandon Jenkins, and freshman swing man Earl Clark have all encountered injury problems this year, but each is reasonably healthy now. Plus, Derrick Caracter, whose career at Louisville appeared in serious jeopardy only a week and a half ago, is back in the coach's good graces and has had two impressive performances in a row.
Anyone who watched the Cardinals dismantle Pittsburgh on both ends of the court saw a much-improved version of the squad that began the season. That's what relatively decent health can do for a team.
The 6'5" Williams is still the team's leading scorer in conference play with an average of 12.6 ppg. However, earlier he was shooting a ton of treys and missing an inordinate number of them. This is a reformed version of the sophomore from Washington. He's taken only one three-pointer in each of the last two Cardinal victories and is concentrating instead on getting into the lane. He's not scoring as much, but he's creating more opportunities for his teammates. He even had seven assists against Pittsburgh. More importantly, he's not shooting Louisville out of games by forcing ill-advised treys.
Padgett thoroughly outplayed Panther star Aaron Gray. The 6'11" transfer from Kansas is more mobile than Gray as well as more highly-skilled. Gray blocked a couple of his shots, but Padgett, displaying excellent footwork, scored 16 points. A couple of times, he showed a picture-perfect jump hook in the lane that Gray could not defend. Padgett will be a handful for Barro, as he was at Louisville when he scored 18 points and had nine rebounds. He probably possesses the best offensive skill set of any center in the conference.
Unlike the game at Louisville, however, Padgett can get some relief. Caracter, the 6'8" man-child has shed 50 pounds though he still weighs 270-275 pounds. What sets him apart, however, is his amazing quickness for a player his size. After not playing at all since the MU game, the former teammate of MU's Lazar Hayward last year at Notre Dame Prep scored 16 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in only 18 minutes against USF's talented front-court tandem of Kentrell Gransberry and McHugh Mattis, who manhandled MU's front line in Tampa before McNeal's game-winning heroics. He then scored eight points and grabbed four boards in only 13 minutes against Pitt. His spin move and baseline drive drew Gray's fourth foul, forcing him to the bench for nearly 10 minutes in the second half.
Pitino hired former star center Ellis Myles to work with Caracter individually in what the coach described as the freshman's "last chance." Apparently, the strategy worked.
As for Palacios, he's still a threat even if he's not yet 100%. In nine games since the MU defeat, Palacios has averaged 11.0 ppg. He looked especially quick and aggressive against the Panthers. He is also looking to score more inside than he has in the past, which is not good news for opponents. MU has trouble matching up with quick, athletic 4s, and Palacios will present a considerable challenge for both Hayward and Fitzgerald.
Also, a major key to the Cardinals' stellar play lately is the emergence of freshman Earl Clark. After getting relatively few minutes for most of the season, the 6'8" small forward has averaged 10.8 ppg and 4.0 rpg in the last four games in 22.3 mpg. He's also shooting 56.7% from the field during that time. It appears that Clark has finally adjusted to the college game.
Pitino's guard trio of freshman point guard Edgar Sosa, senior combo guard Brandon Jenkins, and Smith have also been playing well. Smith has been particularly hot lately from the field as he's hit eight of 11 treys in his last three games. For the conference season, the former Tosa East star is shooting 50.8% overall, including 45.2% from behind the arc.
Sosa is the guy who runs the show, with back-up from sophomore Andre McGee, who is no slouch himself. Though not much of a shooter (22.2% in conference play on threes), the 6'0" freshman is averaging 10.3 ppg. He also has a knack for hitting baskets at critical times.
However, it's not on the offensive end alone that Louisville crushed USF and carved up Pitt. Even more impressive than its offense was the Cardinals' defense. The Panthers, who were leading the league with only 12 turnovers a game, exceeded that number during the first half and finished with 21.
Coach Jamie Dixon's team had no answers, not even Gray, for Pitino's defensive schemes. Though they played mostly zone, Louisville mixed in some man to man, and at times even used a 3-2 zone for the first time all year to complement its normal 2-3 zone. The Cardinal defenders were incredibly active and aggressive, not only in their three-quarter-court press, but also in their half-court defense. They swarmed to the ball, yet, using superior quickness, also managed to recover to deny open looks both inside and outside. The best word perhaps to describe Pittsburgh's players on offense might be "befuddled."
So what does this all mean for Saturday night's game? Both teams are sitting at 8-4, tied for third in the conference, but Louisville is playing well, and MU isn't. Based on that alone, Louisville should be favored, even with the game at the Bradley Center. What looked like an almost-certain win a couple of weeks ago, now looks like an uphill battle.
Given the history of exciting, down-to-the-wire games between the two teams during the Crean era, nothing can be taken for granted. Though it might upset Marquette fans, a victory over Louisville on Saturday would, itself, be an upset. To beat the Cardinals, MU must play significantly better than it has the past few games as Pitino's squad may well be one of the two best teams in the conference at this point.
What does MU need to do to win the game? It would be nice if James could repeat his four-of-seven performance on treys that he had at Freedom Hall. For that matter, Matthews' three of four three-pointers would be a welcome sight, too. However, it's hard to count on either player the way both have shot lately. McNeal sliced through the Cardinals' zone last time, then diced them up with passes to the tune of seven assists. Barro was the recipient of some of those passes, as were the three-point shooters. Besides scoring 14 points, Barro also pulled down four offensive boards, among his total of 11, as MU outrebounded Louisville 34-30.
But that was last time. This time MU has to work the ball inside without forcing the issue and keep the ball moving. When they do get open looks, the three starting guards, as well as Fitzgerald and Cubillan, have to nail at least a third of them, which is easier said than done for this team. Marquette must also take care of the ball. Anything approaching the 21 turnovers Pitt had against Louisville will spell doom. And finally, MU must play defense for 40 minutes, not 20, not 30, or this two-game losing streak will hit three.
Prediction: MU gets enough of its cylinders working to pull out a one-point (maybe two-point) victory in front of a super-charged home crowd as the game seesaws back and forth with the outcome decided in the last five seconds. In other words, this will be a typical MU – UL nail-biter.
**Eric Silver of MarquetteHoops.com is also a contributing writer for CHN, College Hoops Network.