While 1-seed Gonzaga had issues for much of their game against 16-seed Southern on Thursday afternoon, the top overall seed experienced no such issues. In front of a partisan crowd at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Louisville took care of North Carolina A&T by the final score of 79-48.
Russ Smith accounted for a game-high 23 points to go along with eight steals to pace the Cardinals (29-5), who take on the winner of Colorado State/Missouri on Saturday. On the night the Cardinals racked up 20 steals, using their pressure defense to force the overmatched Aggies into 27 turnovers.
Freshman forward Bruce Beckford was the lone North Carolina A&T (20-17) player to reach double figures, finishing with 12 points and four rebounds.
How much can be taken out of a game like this for Louisville? Clearly the caliber of opponent on Saturday will be much better than it was on Thursday regardless of who the Cardinals face. But Smith being relatively under control (he accounted for three assists and four turnovers) is what Rick Pitino’s team will need if they’re to return to the Final Four.
Louisville out-rebounded the Aggies 31-20, grabbing 12 offensive rebounds, and they also scored 44 points in the paint. Rebounding will be critical on Saturday, as both Colorado State (2nd nationally in offensive rebounding percentage) and Missouri (7th) rank among the best teams in the country when it comes to hitting the offensive boards.
After the first media timeout (Louisville led 6-4) the Cardinals eliminated any suspense, making sure that the Aggies wouldn’t hang around as Southern did in Salt Lake City.
The tests will get tougher for Louisville beginning with Saturday’s contest, but the Cardinals did little on Thursday to dissuade those who expect them to reach the Final Four.
The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 10.3 points per game, while shooting 42 percent from three, as a freshman. He, along with Malcolm Hill and Michael Thorne Jr., is one of three returning players who averaged double figures last season.
This could prove to be a make-or-break year for John Groce, who enters his fifth season at the helm. He guided the Illini to an NCAA Tournament in his first season, but hasn’t been back since.
The key for the Illini is health. Abrams gives them experience and leadership, but it won’t be a surprise if there’s some rust in his game after spending the past two seasons on the sideline. Having a healthy Coleman-Lands will help stabilize the backcourt, while Hill, an all-conference caliber forward, and Thorne anchor the frontcourt.
Like Alkins, Jones was a sought-after scorer. The 6-foot-4 two-guard was rated No. 69 overall in the Class of 2016 by Rivals. He picked Indiana over offers from Cal, Cincinnati, Georgetown and more than a dozen other high-major programs.
Jeter, the 6-foot-10, played in a reserve role as a freshman, averaging 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds per game last season. He will be part of a loaded frontline that includes heralded freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, as well as redshirt senior Amile Jefferson, who returns to the lineup following a foot injury.
The greatest player in Auburn program history will honored with a statue outside of the team’s home arena.
The university announced that Charles Barkley, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, will be the fourth athlete to be given a statue, joining Heisman Trophy winners Bo Jackson, Pat Sullivan and Cam Newton.
“It just means a great deal to me,” Barkley said in a statement. “Being a kid from Alabama, going to Auburn. I think everybody knows what Auburn means to me. It’s going to be pretty cool.”
Barkley, currently working as an analyst for TNT, was the SEC Player of the Year in 1984, as well as a second team All-American. He averaged 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in 84 appearances for the Tigers.