You like family affairs?
Well then what better way to follow up the Notre Dame debacle than with a visit from Kevin Willard's longtime mentor in a game that's absolutely huge for both teams?
Here's the rundown on Rick Pitino and the Cardinals:
2011-12 record: 16-5 (4-4 Big East)
All-time series record: 5-9
Last meeting: 1/3/11 (73-54 SHU L)
It's ironic that Louisville comes to town tonight following the horrific offensive night on Wednesday because the last time I can remember the Pirates having that bad of an offensive night, it was their last meeting with Louisville, at the KFC Yum! Center, when they fell behind 24-2 after the first 10 minutes of the game and were basically cooked despite the long amount of time they had to come back from that. In that game, they didn't score in the first 6 minutes of the game. Their shooting percentage? 29% (compared to 26% vs ND on Wednesday).
Last year's Cardinals were a surprising team- Peyton Siva and Preston Knowles were able to make Louisville surpass many people's expectations and ramp the tempo up to break-neck speeds, overcoming a perceived (at least in the preseason) lack of talent to overachieve. This season has sort of been the opposite. The Cardinals were picked 3rd in the conference's preseason poll, but struggled mightily after opening 12-0, losing 4 out of 5 to wrap around the new year, including a home loss to the Irish and a blowout loss at Providence.
That caused the Cards, ranked as high as 4th in the country earlier this year, to nearly drop out of the polls, receiving votes in the AP Poll and tied for 25th in the Coaches' Poll. The reason that Louisville has had a bit of a disappointing season so far is mainly due to their offense. Usually, you never see a Rick Pitino-coached team struggle like this to score the ball, but the Cards are shooting just 43% from the field as a team, including 32% from beyond the arc (which would be the worst mark ever by a Pitino-coached team if the season ended today). Their defense is as good as it ever was, ranking 2nd in the Big East in both FG% defense and steals (the Cards rank 6th and 4th in the nation in those categories, respectively), while ranking 4th in the conference in rebounding and 5th in scoring defense.
Offensively, the Cardinals' offensive struggles can best be summed up in electric volume scoring guard Russ Smith. Hampered by injuries last season, Smith has emerged this season, averaging over 12 PTS and ranking 2nd to Fuquan Edwin in the Big East in STL. He's also shooting just 38% while taking the most shots on the team so far, including a 31% mark from deep. Smith is a player that can take (and make from time to time) some truly heinous shots. He's extremely quick and once he gets on a roll, look out because that roll can last pretty long to where he'll hit 5-6 shots in a row.
Other weapons at Pitino's disposal are the ever-so-efficient sharpshooter Kyle Kuric (who's been on the floor for 40 minutes per game in Big East play and who leads the Cards in scoring at 13.5 PTS), another knockdown perimeter shooter in Chris Smith (who's a NJ-native and St. Benedict's Prep grad, by the way), and two post players with bright futures and pretty darn good presents in the strong freshman Chane Behanan and the much-improved Gorgui Dieng. Behanan has been great on the boards all year long, using his strength to get his way down low. Dieng was a raw shot-blocker type a year ago, but this year, he's developed the nice beginnings of a post-up game, while still being as good as ever on the boards (9.5 per game, 3rd in the conference behind Kevin Jones and Herb Pope), and blocking shots (leading the conference with 3.3 per contest).
Peyton Siva, a preseason All-Big East Second Team selection, hasn't performed up to that level mainly because he's struggled mightily with his shot (36% from the field, 17% from deep). But he's still making plays for others (5.8 AST) and getting his steals on defense (2.1 per game, 6th in the conference) while remaining a great athlete out on the court.
The other story of the year besides the offense struggling to pick up the defense at times has been the litany of injuries that have besieged this team since Day 1. The only player to play in and start ever single game is Dieng. Nearly every other rotation player has missed time with one injury after another, including Rakeem Buckles and Mike Marra, both lost for the year with torn ACLs. McDonald's All-American guard Wayne Blackshear hasn't even suited up yet because of a shoulder injury sustained in a preseason practice. Behanan and Chris Smith have played in every game, but due to the offensive struggles and injuries, they haven't started every game.
Seton Hall will win if:
- They get their leadership mojo back
The leadership has been a little lacking lately, and that has led to "too much 'I' and not enough 'We'" according to Coach Willard. Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope are the keys to putting that ugly Notre Dame loss (plus the two before it) out of the collective minds of the team. They have to step up and lead, especially tonight, where they'll be facing a team that is very similar to Seton Hall in terms of style of play. Which leads me to this next point...
- They beat the Cards at their own game
Kevin Willard was a Rick Pitino disciple from the late 90s with the Boston Celtics all the way up until his hiring at Iona in 2006. Watching the Pirates, you definitely see the influences in terms of style of play. Both teams are great defensively and have guys who can get into passing lanes and create turnovers. Both teams shoot a lot of threes, and have multiple guys to do it with. Both teams love to capitalize off of turnovers and thrive when that statistic is crookedly in their favor. If the Pirates do those things better than the Cardinals, they should have a wonderful shot to break this losing streak and get some confidence heading into their toughest stretch of the year on the road.
Louisville will win if:
- They make enough shots
The Pirates' D has been strong all year, and the Cards have struggled to consistently make shots. Though that may seem tougher to do against a tough defense, the advantage that Louisville has (and really that both teams have) is that they play almost the same base defense. Advantage? I honestly have no idea. But if the Cardinals have a good day shooting the ball, that will put untold amounts of pressure on the sliding Pirates to match it under pain of losing 4 in a row heading out to Marquette, UConn and Rutgers.
- Chane Behanan plays well
As the Pirate fans out there know, and as I've been saying the entire season, when you have two post players playing well at the same time, it makes it tough on opposing front lines. I think Dieng will get his. Behanan has been on a roll, averaging 14 PTS and 8 REB in his last three games, and if he and Dieng are both playing well, it will make it tough on the Seton Hall bigs. Freshmen on the road are almost always wild cards in terms of their level of play, and the Cardinals hope that wild card turns up aces for them tonight.
This game is ENORMOUS. I really cannot overstate that fact. It's enormous because of the standings (the winner will remain above .500 in the conference and move ahead of the other in the standings; the teams are currently ranked 9th and 10th in the Big East). It's enormous for the Pirates because if they go on that three-game road stretch having lost 4 in a row it could easily continue to snowball to 6 or 7 in a row. It's enormous for the Cardinals because they need to continue to climb the standings after a really rough start to conference play. And did I mention the similarity in style of play and the relationship of the coaches?
This game represents a crossroads game for both teams. Win, and your fanbase gets some confidence. Lose, and your fanbase goes back to the drawing board again. I'll be on the call for WSOU. Who wants it more? We'll find out tonight.