Louisville Cardinals Smith steals the ball from Oregon Ducks Dotson during their Midwest Regional NCAA men's basketball game in Indianapolis

Russ Smith’s 31 points helps Louisville hold off Oregon, advance to the Elite Eight

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The Louisville Cardinals never trailed, jumped out to an early lead, and fought off a pair of Oregon Ducks runs in the second half, as the Cardinals secured another berth in the Elite Eight on Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in the Midwest Region with a 77-69 win.

Russ Smith dominated the game with 31 points. He had 16 in the first half to give Louisville at 14-point halftime lead.

But Oregon shot the ball much better in the second half and Dominic Artis cut the lead to single, before Louisville went on a 10-0 run pushing the lead to 66-48 as it looked like the Cards were ready to put this one away.

However, the underseeded Ducks came out of the timeout, and went on a 16-4 run to get back in the game. Damyean Dotson got the lead to as close as six, 70-64, for the first time since early in the first half. Louisville once again countered with six straight points, forcing the lead back up to double digits. That quick spurt was highlighted by Smith’s drive, and instead of going up dished to Chane Behanan for the slam.

The Cards got a great jump out of the starting blocks, treating the first half like a track meet. Despite having Peyton Siva hit the pine five minutes in due to foul problems, Louisville got out in transiton, controlled the tempo and led by 16 midway through the first 20 minutes. In a five minute stretch, Oregon went without a field goal as Louisville upped the lead.

Louisville needed a little bit of a scare after rolling in its first two wins against North Carolina A&T and Colorado State. And that’s exactly what Oregon provided, only a little one. Louisville always seemed to be in control of the game.

This game could have gotten out of hand if it wasn’t for terrific second half shooting by Oregon, early foul trouble that plagued Siva. Louisville didn’t play its best and still won relatively comfortably. The Cards only forced 12 turnovers, credit to Oregon, but the Ducks only had it within two scores one time in the final 35 minutes.

No. 1 seed Louisville play the winner of No. 3 Michigan State/No. 2 Duke in the Midwest Regional final on Sunday.

Terrence is also the lead writer at NEHoopNews.com and can be followed on Twitter: @terrence_payne

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.