There is no question that the Louisville Cardinals are currently playing the best basketball in the country entering the Sweet 16. As much credit that Coach Pitino gave to the talent of Colorado St., which was deserved in my opinion as they were a good team, they made very easy work of both the Rams and North Carolina A&T in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Last year the Cardinals entered the tournament hot coming off a Big East tournament championship, earning a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and pulled the convincing 57-44 upset over #1 seed Michigan St. in the Sweet 16. This year Louisville will be the hunted and looking to hold off an equally hot Oregon Ducks team, who are fresh off a Pac 12 tournament championship. The Ducks were relegated to a #12 seed on Selection Sunday for some inexplicable reason, and experts and fans alike were outraged at the under-seeding. That didn’t faze the Ducks however, mis-seeded or not, they went out and took care of business against #5 seed Oklahoma St. and #4 seed St. Louis, making the experts and fans look good.
Louisville is a different animal, though. Actually, they are a team made up of animals.
Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng are absolute terrors on both ends of the court. Smith, who takes 32.5% of total shots when on the floor (25th most in the country), has the unique ability to shoot his team both into and out of games. For most of the season, and especially recently, we have gotten the hot-handed Smith (he is 17-31 or 46% for a total of 50 points in the two NCAA Tournament games), but every now and then we get the bad Russ. Dieng, on the other hand, just needs to be on the floor as his size alone is enough to get defenses off-balance. And when he steps out and makes a 15-footer, you can only shake your head and accept it – nothing you can do.
However, these two are equally talented, and maybe even more important from a top-down team perspective, on the defensive end. Smith’s quick feet, excellent hands, and small frame make him a one man press, while Diengs’ height and great instincts protects the rim with authority.
The rest of the Cardinals are no slouches on the floor either. Defensively, they all understand their role, play with great energy, and get after opponents on a consistent basis. If you’re dogging it then you’re on the bench. This team’s identity is based on constantly being in the opponents face. And there isn’t a team in the country that collectively understands and sees passing lanes so well. It truly is impressive how often they get a hand on the ball.
I say that because there is one glaring stat entering the game between Louisville and Oregon that each team possesses, and it has to do with turnovers. Louisville, the #1 rated defense in the country, forces the second most turnovers in the country (they force a turnover 28% of the time). While Oregon turns the ball over well above average (they are ranked 264th nationally in turning the ball over). I acknowledge that Oregon’s turnover% may be a bit inflated (21.5%) as their point guard, Dominic Artis, was out for seven games during the season, but they turned it over 18 times (25% of their possessions) against St. Louis in the round of 32 with Artis on the floor (St. Louis forces the 20thmost turnovers in the nation). Louisville actually forced Colorado St. into 20 turnovers (31% of their possessions) and the Rams were actually a really good team at protecting the ball heading into the game.
But you don’t need the stats to tell you that the Ducks are in for a long day against the Cards’ defense, because they do this to every team they play. It just seems it’s going to be even more problematic for Oregon on Friday night.
Louisville hasn’t lost since the second week of February, a five overtime thriller at Notre Dame. If they hadn’t botched five opportunities to win that game they could be on a 16 game winning streak. Nonetheless, this team has looked really good since that lost (to be fair they didn’t look great in the first half against Syracuse in the Big East championship, but it was nothing a few half time adjustments couldn’t fix) and they are a squad on a mission to finish the job from last year. Peyton Siva has found his form and is once again running the point magnificently, Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell and Kevin Ware are far more than just role players, and Luke Hancock is hitting daggers from the corners. Combine that with the play of Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng, and you have a team that should breeze by the Oregon Ducks on Friday night.