In their last four games, the Cardinals have topped DePaul and Providence in addition to UConn. Their only loss over that span has been a nine point defeat at the hands of a surging Marquette squad. Overall, the Cardinals have won nine of their last 11 games and sit at 14-6 on the season, including a 12-3 mark at Freedom Hall. Other teams to hand Louisville losses this season are Dayton (68-64), Arizona (72-65), Massachusetts (72-68), Kentucky (61-49), and Notre Dame (78-62).
The Cardinals were picked sixth in the Big East in the preseason coaches poll, but have had such a roller coaster season thus far that no one quite knows which team to expect: the squad that thumped UConn, or the one that's scrambling just to get back to the bubble of the NCAA Tournament.
Some of the team's struggles can be traced to the recent injury to Juan Palacios (6-8, 250), the team's most talented player who was limited in action until recently, when he finally got his health and his game back on track in the win over DePaul. Palacios hit 8-of-10 shots, including 3-of-4 from deep, en route to 21 points as the team won in Chicago.
For the season, Palacios is the team's third leading scorer, averaging 10.1 points per game to go along with 6.3 boards. Palacios has seen his scoring dip a bit in Big East play, averaging just 9.4 points and 3.4 rebounds against conference foes. However, those numbers are a bit deceptive. Palacios has averaged only 16 minutes per game since conference play started, and as noted has just recently seen his playing time increase, getting his first start since his injury in the UConn game. Palacios scored 16 points against the Huskies, knocking down three triples.
Palacios is shooting 49.6% from the field and 35.5% from deep this season, but in conference play he has been scorching hot, knocking down 59.3% of his overall attempts and 54.5% from downtown. He has struggled a bit from the line, however, making 65.3% of his attempts this season.
The leading scorer and rebounder for the Cardinals is sophomore Terrence Williams (6-6, 210). Williams averages 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, along with 3.7 assists. In conference play, his numbers are 16.2 points and 8.2 boards per contest. However, the sophomore wing has struggled with his shot this year, making only 37% of his attempts from the floor. Williams also knocks down only 24.8% from deep, though his percentage in Big East play has risen to 35.4%. Like Palacios, Williams has had some difficulty from the charity stripe, making 55.4% this season. In conference play he's making two thirds of his foul shots.
In recent games, Williams has been especially poor with his shooting, making only 3-of-13 shots against DePaul and 4-of-16 in the loss to Marquette. However, he bounced back with an 18 points, nine rebound effort against UConn on Big Monday.
Edgar Sosa (6-1, 175) is one half of a dynamic freshman guard duo, along with Jerry Smith (6-1, 200). Sosa enters the game averaging 11 points and 2.8 assists per game, and has come away with a team best 35 steals. He's shooting 37.8% from three this season, though he's made only 25% of his attempts from long range since conference play began. His free throw shooting (63.9%) is also a concern for Louisville.
Smith is the team's top three point shooter percentage wise, knocking down 45.8% of his treys. He averages nine points and 4.3 rebounds and is making 46% of his shots from the field, and is one of the few bright spots from the free throw line, hitting 81.5% of his charity tosses.
It's still not certain whether Smith or Brandon Jenkins (6-3, 185), a senior guard, will start against the 'Cuse. Jenkins averages 4.7 points , but is hitting only 31% of his field goal attempts. Jenkins struggles from deep, making 27.1% of his triples, so if the Orange play the 2-3 as expected, look for Smith to be in to bust it open rather than Jenkins.
The man in the middle is Kansas transfer David Padgett (6-11, 245). Padgett had perhaps a career game against UConn, scoring 19 points and grabbing a season-high 11 boards, and was the lone bright spot against Marquette, scoring 18 and pulling down nine rebounds. For the year, he averages 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, and is the team's top free throw shooter at 83.1%. Padgett is hitting 62.1% of his shots from the field and has blocked 24 shots.
The Cardinals have a potentially dangerous freshman forward coming off the bench in Earl Clark (6-8, 220), a Jersey native who is averaging 3.8 points and 2.6 boards while shooting 42.9% from the field and 70.8% from the line. He has also knocked down 3-of-8 triple attempts, though he's still looking for his first trey against a Big East team.
This Louisville team, like any other Pitino coached team, looks to generate points by forcing turnovers. For the season, they've forced opponents into 327 turnovers, an average of 16.4 per game. They forced UConn into 20 turnovers, and it was their stingy defense (coupled with poor decision making) that allowed them to break open a game against DePaul that was tied at the half.
Their big second halves against UConn and DePaul are the trend this season. The Cardinals are scoring 31.3 points on 37% shooting before the break, but are putting up 40.3 points on 49% shooting after halftime, and outscoring their opponents by 8.8 points in the second frame. Couple this with the fact that, despite relying on young guards, they have averaged just 9.5 turnovers per game in their last four outings, and they are a tough matchup.
Despite their relatively good all around size, they have struggled to rebound in Big East play, getting out-boarded 37-34 on average. Derrick Caracter would certainly help in this regard, but he has been suspended twice already this season and his status for this game is unknown.
A plus for the Orange is that, like Syracuse, Louisville is a second half team, so it's less likely that the Cardinals will build a big first half lead (which has happened to this Syracuse team far too often). However, the Cardinals are 10-0 when they score 70+ points and make seven or more points, and also 10-0 when they are up at the half. The Cardinals are 3-6 if they are trailing or tied at halftime, a number that is a bit of a head scratcher when you consider their second half numbers.
In Jim Boeheim's 1000th game, which fittingly comes against one of his first coaching hires, it will be essential for the Orange to hang onto the ball. Lately, the team has shown horrific basketball smarts, and one of the prime culprits has been Josh Wright. Against a pesky team like Louisville, Wright has got to get his game together and his brain working.
The Cardinals used a tough, active zone to fluster DePaul last weekend, and if they try to play zone against the Orange (a ploy that works all too well against the zone oriented 'Cuse), then Syracuse will need solid games offensively from players like Terrence Roberts, Demetris Nichols, and Eric Devendorf.
Now, saying that the Orange needs its three star players to have solid games seems obvious, but they must play solid all-around games in the halfcourt. Devendorf has got to be strong with the ball and make smart decisions, Nichols has got to shake his recent ups and downs and more consistently give his team "ups", and Roberts has got to be a patient, smart player. He has to realize that he can't try to cross over the Louisville defenders, and in fact should try to limit his dribbling at all. Be active, crash the boards, and make smart passes when he gets the ball in the high post.
Mookie Watkins can more than hold his own against Padgett, but Padgett is a pretty smart and skilled basketball player who can make some solid passes and will kill you at the line if you hack him around the bucket. Mookie had been showing growth and maturity in recent games, only to stumble a bit lately. He needs to play against Padgett like he did at the start of the Big East season.
Finally, with the way his team has been playing lately, JB needs to start thinking long and hard about a few things, first and foremost the continued presence of Andy Rautins in the starting lineup. Devo has made a few boneheaded plays lately, but he's the most dynamic scorer on the Orange roster. He better serves his team by providing an instant spark right from the tip, rather than three or four minutes into the game. Rautins is a pretty heady player, but the fact is he's a role player being asked to play a role that's really just too big for him.
This game is a big one for the Orange, and there's no denying it. Both teams are fighting for position within the Big East, and both are vying for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. That the game is being played at Freedom Hall, where the Cardinals hold a 3-1 lead in games versus Syracuse, may give a slight edge to Louisville…
Prediction: …but the Orange won on the road against a Marquette team that is better than this Louisville squad, and assuming that is the version of the Orange that shows up, look for a Syracuse win. This is a tough game to call, as the two teams are in relatively the same situation, and given the fact that Syracuse has struggled of late. However, the troops come together for Jimmy B's 1000th, and make it sweet, rather than bittersweet, with an 8-12 point victory.