JP's Scouting Report: Louisville Cardinals

One reason Louisville has ascended to a top-5 ranking is the development of Russ Smith. - USA TODAY Sports

Seton Hall returns home for first conference game as The Student faces The Master for the fifth time.

Seton Hall finally gets some home cooking on Thursday night. That's a relief considering how the first two Big East games have gone.

But when you consider that it'll be Rick Pitino and his top-5 Cardinals invading the Rock, it may not be so much relief as a welcome change of setting.

Here's what you need to know for tonight's contest:

#3/4 Louisville (13-1)

2011-12 record: 30-10 (10-8 Big East, 7th place)

Key losses: Kyle Kuric, Chris Smith, Rakeem Buckles, Jared Swopshire, Mike Marra (injury)

Key returnees: Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, Gorgui Dieng, Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell, Luke Hancock, Kevin Ware, Stephan Van Treese

Last year, Louisville peaked at the right time.

They were great at the beginning of the year, average during conference play, and great again at the end of the year. Beginning with their Big East tournament victory against Seton Hall, a game that Jordan Theodore tried his darndest to swing the other way (and he almost did, too), the Cardinals' defense was otherwordly. Offensively, aside from the three-point line, they statistically stunk, but they were the personification of the phrase "defense wins championships" for two weeks. They ran into Kentucky in the Final Four, but you really can't blame them for losing to that superteam.

This season, they come in with boatloads of hype, and so far, it has been deserved. Their defense is still great- the Cards are one of if not the best defensive teams in the nation this season. Last year, by Rick Pitino's own admission, Louisville tried to disguise a lot of their looks (somewhat like Seton Hall does, not coincidentally). This year, Louisville just gets after you.

They are led on both offense and defense by one of the smallest players on the team in combo guard Russ Smith. Smith in past years has had no conscience whatsoever when it comes to shooting. In fact, he led the Big East in percentage of team attempts when he was on the court. But this season, he seems to have figured something out. He's making 48% of his attempts inside the arc, a dramatic improvement from last season, and he leads the team in three-point attempts while making an adequate 36% from there. At 20 PTS, he is one of only a few players in the Big East scoring more than Fuquan Edwin is.

But where he's always made his mark is on defense, where his relentless ball-hawking leads to steals in bunches. He's second in the Big East so far (Michael Carter-Williams leads the conference, Edwin is third), and it's where he has an opportunity to really make things happen against the Pirates.

Alongside him in the backcourt is the now-senior point guard Peyton Siva. Like Smith, Siva has also made himself a much more efficient basketball player offensively. His percentages have shot up across the board, most notably in free throw shooting (88% from 74%) and three-point land (37% from 26%). He is also turning the ball over a little less, something that nearly cost the Cardinals in BOTH games against the Pirates last year.

In the frontcourt, Gorgui Dieng is still there to play defense and block shots, but an important thing to note is that he missed time earlier this season with injury and isn't quite at the level he was last year down the stretch. He's still a dangerous offensive rebounder, though, as almost half of his 8.3 REB are on the offensive glass.

While Dieng is the defense, Chane Behanan is the post offense for the Cards. He's built on a solid freshman campaign to post a very respectable 11 PTS and 7 REB per contest this season, and he's continuing to make half of his shots from the field, but he will miss this game with a high ankle sprain sustained in practice.

Wayne Blackshear has filled in the gaps at the small forward position, taking over for the departed Kyle Kuric. An athletic wing who came back mid-season from a shoulder injury, Blackshear's scoring a little, rebounding a little, and knocking down a few threes, although not at the rate Kuric did.

In reserve, the Cardinals have good depth. Kevin Ware backs up both guard positions, offering a spell to either Siva or Smith when needed. Luke Hancock, a George Mason transfer, is a good passer and a good shooter from the wing positions, although he is also continuing to deal with a shoulder issue that has made his shooting numbers suffer early on.

In the paint, Montrezl Harrell (pronounced "Mon-Trez") is a long-armed, athletic freshman who has tremendous potential for the future. He hasn't asked to do much (namely finish inside when given an opening, defend and rebound), but he's doing it well, and will start in place of the injured Behanan. Stephan Van Treese provides a little bit of bulk as well, and he's grabbed more than half of his 4.1 REB on the offensive boards.

This is a really tough matchup as usual for Seton Hall, as both teams play similar styles. Think of Louisville's get-after-it approach on D as what the Pirates hope to be next season when their depth really returns. For now, the Pirates are still hobbling, but you can bet that they will be amped to get such a highly ranked team on their home floor.

Seton Hall will win if:

- They keep control of the ball. Turnovers have been an issue for the Pirates this season, and there aren't many better teams in terms of forcing turnovers than Russ Smith and Louisville. Louisville opponents this season have turned the ball over an AVERAGE of 20 times a game with an astounding AST/TO ratio of 0.4. If the Pirates can't take care of the ball, this one will be over quickly.

- The zone is active. It MUST be active, because for some reason, when teams zone up Louisville, their offense has run a little smoother in terms of ball movement. That's the sign of a well-coached team, and so the Pirates need to keep their feet and hands active on Thursday. The reason teams play zone against Louisville is because of the quickness of Smith and Siva, which brings me to this point.....

- The point guards handle the pressure. Ball pressure, full-court pressure, pressure of the game (on national TV), whatever. The reason Seton Hall was able to stay with Louisville last year was that Jordan Theodore was a warrior against this pressure, and even his box scores from those games don't look great. Aaron Cosby has been a warrior in the last couple games in this regard, especially shooting and scoring-wise, but he needs help from Tom Maayan and Kyle Smyth against the likes of Smith and Siva.

Louisville will win if:

- Smith is "Russdiculous." Russ Smith is the type of player who can make some incredible, how'd-he-do-that plays. If this game is close down the stretch, he's a talent that can win you the game.

- They avoid turnovers. The Cards have never played tremendously well in Newark. The first time, Jeremy Hazell became JEREMY HAZELL. The second time was better, but the Pirates were still able to win. And last season, the Cards turned the ball over 24 times leading to 23 Seton Hall points, a large reason the Pirates had a chance in that one considering they shot 28% for the game. Siva committed 7 of those crucial turnovers on his own. If he can keep the ball in his own end, Rick Pitino will be happy.

--------------------------------------------------

Two stats will be key in this game- Rebounding and Turnovers. Last season, those trends held true- Louisville out-rebounded the Pirates 43-34 despite 12 offensive boards by the Hall, and the Cards turned the ball over 24 times compared to the Pirates' 12. The absence of Behanan and the still-coming-back Dieng make the rebounding part easier for the depth-challenged Pirates.

Call me crazy, but I think if the Hall can make a few shots in this game, they'll give Louisville a fight.

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