Rick Pitino, Russ Smith

Five Thoughts: USC’s a sleeper, Arizona’s issues, Russ-ficiency?

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Is Russ-diculous now Russ-ficient?: Louisville’s three-game losing streak earlier this season also happened to coincide with a turning point for rick Pitino and his dynamic off-guard Russ Smith. Smith was benched for the third game of that losing streak, as Pitino was efforting to get Smith to reign-in his shoot-first, think-later mindset. After two games where Smith played much better, the situation seemed to reach a head, as Smith went 3-11 in a closer-than-it-should-have-been win over Rutgers and then put on a disastrous performance down the stretch of Louisville’s five-overtime loss at Notre Dame.

But over the last five games, Smith has been as efficient as he’s been effective. He’s averaging 18.6 points over that stretch, with an average offensive rating of 128.0 during that stretch, up from 109.4 for the season. In fact, if you take away the Notre Dame game, Smith’s average offensive rating in his last eight games is 134.8.

Perhaps what’s most telling, however, was Saturday. Smith finished with 18 points on 11 shots. With less than a minute left and the score tied, Smith drove and, instead of forcing a tough shot, he found Luke Hancock for a three that eventually game the Cardinals the win. Given Louisville’s struggles in late-game situations, this is an immensely positive sign.

You don’t want to play USC in the Pac-12 tournament: Back in the preseason, the Trojans were thought to be a team that could be a sleeper to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament this season. With most of their injured talent returning this season, and with a slew of solid transfers getting eligible this year, Kevin O’Neill’s team was supposed to win some games.

But O’Neill was fired midway through the season after some abysmal performances. With Bob Cantu in place, USC is finally starting to find their groove. After beating Arizona and Arizona State at home this week, the Trojans are now 9-7 in the Pac-12 and have won six of their last eight games, which also includes an overtime win at Pauley Pavilion.

Could the Trojans be this season’s Colorado?

What’s going on at Arizona?: While USC is streaking, the Wildcats are struggling. They got swept at the LA schools this weekend, getting exposed defensively as the Trojans and the Bruins did just about whatever they wanted offensively.

There’s a larger issue at hand here. Arizona is now two games off the lead in the Pac-12 with just one game left to play. The only time that they have beaten a tournament team in 2013 is when Sabatino Chen’s game-winning three-pointer was incorrectly waived off. The Wildcats will be prime for an upset, as they will likely end up getting overseeded thanks to some strong — and lucky — non-conference wins.

Towson: It’s a shame that Towson won’t be able to participate in the 2013 CAA tournament, because this may actually be a team that has a chance to win the automatic bid. They set the NCAA record for the largest turnaround in history, going from a single win to 18 wins this season.

How good is the new North Carolina?: Since going to a four-guard lineup six games ago, the Tar Heels are 5-1, with their only loss coming by five points at Duke. Spreading the floor has been ideal offensively, as James Michael McAdoo is a matchup problem for opposing centers and Reggie Bullock and PJ Hairston have thrived with opposing fours having to cover them. Throw in the improved play of Marcus Paige, who seems like he’s finally gained the confidence to lead this team, and the Heels are scoring a ton of points.

But can they defend with this lineup? Well, it appears so. Over these six games, Roy Williams’ club has given up just 0.956 PPP, and their adjusted defensive efficiency would rank in the top 20 nationally.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Wisconsin ends No. 2 Maryland’s 27-game home win streak

Wisconsin forward Vitto Brown (30) shoots during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Maryland, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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Just over a month ago Wisconsin lost at Northwestern, dropping to 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten and had the look of a team that would have to fight simply to get into the NIT. Since then, Greg Gard’s Badgers have won seven straight games with the most recent triumph being a 70-57 victory at No. 2 Maryland. Not only did Wisconsin become the first Big Ten team to beat the Terrapins at the Xfinity Center since Maryland joined the Big Ten, but they also ended Maryland’s 27-game home win streak.

And it was Wisconsin’s offensive balance that stood out, as four starters scored in double figures led by forward Vitto Brown.

Brown, who accounted for 18 points and five rebounds in Wisconsin’s win over Nebraska Wednesday night, was even better against Maryland as he scored a career-high 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting from the field and grabbed seven rebounds. While Bronson Koenig (16 points, six rebounds, five assists) and Nigel Hayes (14 and six rebounds) are the ones expected to shoulder much of the load, players such as Brown, Ethan Happ and Zak Showalter (11 points) will also be key as Wisconsin makes its push for an NCAA tournament bid.

In Wisconsin’s first five conference games Brown averaged 4.4 points and 1.8 rebounds per contest. Since then he’s averaging 11.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, scoring in double figures in each of Wisconsin’s last three games.

Overall Wisconsin’s looked far more fluid offensively during this win streak, and over the last three games the Badgers have shot very well from the perimeter as they made nearly 51 percent of their attempts (12-for-26 against Maryland). Add in Wisconsin’s ability to take advantage of Maryland’s defensive rebounding issues, converting 13 offensive boards into 20 second-chance points, and it was easy to see why Wisconsin was able to grab control of the game in the first half during a 20-0 run that gave them the separation they needed.

Maryland’s issues throughout conference play remain the same, as they struggled to end defensive possessions while also turning the ball over far too often (seven times) during the aforementioned Wisconsin run. With Melo Trimble not playing at the level he’s capable of reaching (he may not be completely healthy), Maryland has some things to address during this stretch run.

But more than anything, Saturday was the product of a Wisconsin team that’s starting to click at the right time. And as crazy as it may seem, given how Wisconsin began Big Ten play, the Badgers only two games out of first place.

No. 5 Xavier finds shooting touch in 74-57 blowout at Butler

Xavier head coach Chris Mack talks with James Farr (2) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Butler, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Indianapolis. Xavier won 74-57. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
AP Photo/Darron Cummings
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) No. 5 Xavier learned its lesson.

To keep winning, it must continue do the dirty work.

Four days after stumbling at Creighton, the Musketeers got back to basics and used a balanced offense and a smothering defense to run away from Butler 74-57 on Saturday.

“We played much better today and after about the first four or five minutes, we defended,” coach Chris Mack said. “Our shots were, in my opinion, really good ones because we got in the lane, we made the extra pass and I thought that was the difference.”

Whatever the explanation, the Musketeers (22-3, 10-3 Big East) certainly looked worthy of the highest ranking in school history.

After making a season-low 30 percent from the field and just 1 of 21 3-point attempts in Tuesday’s loss, Xavier rebounded by shooting 56.9 percent and going 9 of 18 beyond the arc. J.P. Macura led the way with 13 points while Edmond Sumner and Remy Abell each had 12.

But the biggest improvements showed up in other areas – defense, rebounding and effort. They allowed 36 points over the final 31 1/2 minutes.

“Everybody was boxing out and rebounding, and on the offensive end we have so much talent we could get whatever we wanted,” said Abell, who started his college career playing for the Indiana Hoosiers.

The difference was obvious.

Butler (17-8, 6-7) was held almost 25 points below its season average.

Kelan Martin, with 15 points, and Andrew Chrabascz, with 12, were the only players to score more than 10. And the top three scorers – Martin, Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones – were a combined 11 of 39 from the field as the Bulldogs’ three-game winning streak came to an end.

Xavier crushed the Bulldogs so thoroughly that chants of “Let’s Go X” resounded throughout sold out Hinkle Fieldhouse over the final minutes.

“We didn’t have near the effort, the juice, the purpose defensively and we didn’t move the ball offensively and that was actually the case from the opening minute,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “We mentioned that in the four-minute media and said that had to improve and when it doesn’t these things happen.”

Butler used a 9-0 first-half run to take a 21-13 lead midway through the first half.

Xavier answered with a 27-6 run that included four 3s and a three-point play in a 27-6 run to make it 40-27. The Bulldogs got as close as 47-39 early in the second half, which later became a seven-point deficit after a replay review gave Dunham a 3.

But the Bulldogs couldn’t get closer.

“You can go 1 for 21 one game, and then the next game it’s – I’m sure it was better,” Macura said. “That’s basketball.”

POINTERS

Xavier’s dominance showed up in two key stats on the box score. The Musketeers outscored Butler 36-14 in points off the bench and 36-18 in the paint despite having only two offensive rebounds. Xavier has won six of its last seven.

ON THE ROAD

Even the road has been kind to the Musketeers this season. They have won seven times in true road games, their highest season total since 2010-11. They have also won five Big East games on the road – more than they won in either of their first two seasons in the league and they have won 10 of the last 13 at Hinkle.

MOVING UP

Dunham continues his ascent on the Bulldogs’ career scoring list. After moving from 14th to sixth on the list in the first 23 games this season, Dunham moved passed Lynn Mitchem (1,798) for fifth and within one point of A.J. Graves (1,807) for fourth. Matt Howard is third (1,939) and the only 2,000-point scorers in school history are Chad Tucker (2,321) and Darrin Fitzgerald (2,019).

TIP-INS

Xavier: Former Indiana prep star Trevon Bluiett had 11 points and four rebounds and James Farr had 12 rebounds. … Each of Xavier’s 22 wins has come by at least seven points. … The Musketeers were the highest-ranked team to play at Hinkle Fieldhouse since No. 3 DePaul visited Feb. 23, 1981.

Butler: Shot 33.3 percent overall and was 8 of 22 on 3s. …. The Bulldogs only have three wins at home against Top 10 teams – No. 8 Gonzaga in January 2013, No. 3 Michigan in 1965-66 and No. 5 Tennessee in 1958-59. … Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence attended the game.

UP NEXT

Xavier hosts No. 20 Providence on Wednesday.

Butler hosts Creighton on Tuesday.