SCOUTING THE CARDINALS
Like just about every other Big East team, Louisville has gone through a rough stretch, but the Cardinals have rebounded nicely to put themselves back in the thick of a race for a double bye in the league tournament. The Cards stumbled at the turn of the year, losing five of seven games, but have since reeled off five consecutive wins to position themselves for a strong stretch run. Injuries were a factor during the skid, as the Cards have eight different players who have missed at least one game due to injury this season, but they now appear to be rounding back into shape for the end of the year.
Louisville, like Notre Dame, puts a well-balanced starting five on the floor, all of whom are capable of scoring. Forward Kyle Kuric (13.0) and center Gorgui Dieng (10.4) both average in double figures, while freshman Chane Behanan (9.6) is just a few buckets away from joining them. Dieng is a defensive monster, gobbling up 9.3 rebounds and swatting 81 shots on the season, and he likely has altered just as many more as he patrols the lane. Kuric adds five rebounds per contest and is a consistent three point threat, while Behanan, who clearly benefited from the attention shown to his teammates, has developed quite rapid in his first collegiate season. He can be a bit shaky with the ball at times, but he pounds the boards to the tune of nearly eight per game and has made the sort of contributions that West Virginia hoped to get from its own freshmen wings this year.
Forward Jared Swopshire fills out the rotation on the front line, averaging 13 minutes in a backup role. He adds 3.9 points and 2.8 rebounds to the stat sheet, and is the sort of dependable backup that many teams lack.
The Card guards are more of the same -- solid up and down the roster. Shooter Chris Smith averages 10.4 points per outing, but is capable of getting a hot hand and exploding on any given day, while Peyton Siva directs the attack and adds 8.4 points to the scoring column. He's not an outside scorer, so WVU must look to limit his penetration. Russ Smith, who has seven starts under his belt, is even more effective off the bench, scoring 12 points per game and giving UL more scoring firepower.
Louisville doens't press quite as much as it has in years past, but it still gets into full court defenses and forces turnovers all over the court. The Cards average 9.5 steals per game, ranking them sixth nationally, but they give many of those extra chances away with 15 turnovers per outing. They are also very strong in the halfcourt, yielding just a 36.9% success rate on opponent field goal tries. Overall UL's strengths clearly outweight the few holes in their overall game, and they figure to be one of the teams that can challenge Syracuse for league supremacy in the Garden in March.
West Virginia played a balanced team with limited athleticism on Wednesday night, and figured out a way to lose. What will it do, then, against a team that also features balanced productivity, but can run, jump and drive the ball at levels that Notre Dame can only dream of?
WVU 16-9, 6-6
UL 19-5, 7-4
WVU - 34
UL - 23
Second, WVU will have to deal with Louisville's pressure defense. It hasn't had to work against much of that in recent contests, and the fear is that the guards have forgotten some of the lessons they learned when facing pressure teams. Watch the entire floor when Louisville deploys in its full court press. Is everyone in a WVU jersey aware that the press is on? Are they making sharp cuts to get open, or simply standing in one place? Are WVU's guards aware of Louisville's penchant for tapping the ball away from a dribbler from behind -- are they protecting the ball on the move? If not, the Cards will add to their impressive steal total and get some easy buckets that WVU may be hard-pressed to match.
Finally, the Mountaineers simply can't afford another bad start. While WVU has been resilient enough to rally from a number of deficits this year, constantly playing from behind is a strain that takes its toll. That's not saying that it has to jump out to an early lead, but another double-digit deficit is going to be very hard to make up.
Finally, how will the Mountaineers react to the challenges laid down to various members of the program recently? Head coach Bob Huggins all but called out the newcomers by blasting their lack of individual work, and Deniz Kilicli noted that there are still some team members who don't know all of the plays. Whether that proves to be motivational or not reamains to be seen, but the suspicion is that if those things aren't part of the team ethos at this time, it may be too late.
The last four games between the Mountaineers and Cardinals have been decided by three points or fewer.
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In West Virginia's last five games, its bench has scored a grand total of 50 points.
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Louisville is the only university in the nation which over the last six years has reached each of the men's and women's Final Four, a BCS bowl game, the College World Series and the Men's Soccer College Cup.
Louisville was national runner up in the 2009 Women's Final Four and 2010 Men's Soccer College Cup, won the 2007 Orange Bowl, and participated in the 2005 Men's Final Four and 2007 College World Series.
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West Virginia has now yielded a successful three-point shot on its opponents' last possession of the first half in four consecutive games. Maybe it's time to just foul someone and limit the potential damage to two points?