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No. 4 Louisville advances but will need more from Russ Smith next week

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With Midwest Region No. 4 seed Louisville and No. 5 seed Saint Louis being two of the best defensive teams in the NCAA tournament field, it was somewhat predictable that both teams would have a tough time scoring. That turned out to be the case for much of the afternoon, but a 15-4 second half Louisville run gave the defending national champions the separation they needed to beat the Billikens by the final score of 66-51.

Louisville finished the game shooting 44.6% from the field, with senior guard Luke Hancock’s 21 points leading four Cardinals in double figures. Hancock hit two of his four three-pointers during the decisive run, with Chris Jones (11 points) and Montrezl Harrell (ten points, 11 rebounds) also factoring into the equation.

Rick Pitino’s will make its third consecutive Sweet 16 as a result, with this being the second time in the Hall of Fame coaches’ storied career that he’s accomplished that feat (1995-97 at Kentucky). And a stat that should make Louisville fans feel even better with an eye towards next week in Indianapolis: Pitino has a record of 11-0 in Sweet 16 games.

But if the Cardinals are to make a run at another national title they’ll need more from senior guard Russ Smith, who struggled this weekend in Orlando.

Smith, averaging 18.3 points and 4.6 assists per game entering Saturday, scored 11 points on 3-for-10 shooting against Saint Louis’ tough man-to-man defense. Add in his showing against Manhattan and the All-American shot 6-for-19 from the field, a far cry from the 47.2% he’s shooting this season.

How much is the sore left thumb bothering Smith? The tape job proved to be a nuisance early, with Smith removing it during the first half of Saturday’s game. These next few days will give Smith some valuable time to recuperate, and whether the opponent is No. 1 Wichita State or No. 8 Kentucky the Cardinals will need their star guard to be at his best. And looking back on Smith’s games against Manhattan and Saint Louis, the shooting numbers aren’t the ones that would be a cause for concern looking forward.

In those two games Smith accounted for ten assists and 13 turnovers, breaking even of his assist-to-turnover ratio against the Billikens (seven assists, seven turnovers). Smith’s assist-to-turnover ratio this season: 1.7. Granted he went up against two good defensive teams, but that’s going to be the case throughout the remainder of the tournament.

Louisville took care of Saint Louis thanks to their defense, limiting SLU to 39.6% shooting and forcing 18 turnovers, with their offensive balance coming through in the second half. The goal this time of year is a simple one: survive and advance, and they managed to do so with Smith not playing his best basketball.

Luke Hancock catches fire late, No. 4 Louisville holds off No. 13 Manhattan’s upset

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source: Getty Images
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Luke Hancock scored eight straight points for No. 4 Louisville in the final 1:53 as the Cardinals avoided a massive upset on the NCAA tournament’s opening day with a 71-64 win over No. 13 Manhattan.

Hancock finished the night with 16 points, four assists and four boards. He set up Russ Smith for a three to tie the game at 58 with a little more than three minutes left, and after the two teams traded buckets, Hancock stole a floating, cross court pass and drew a foul, hitting both free throws. On the next two Louisville possessions, Hancock drilled threes, which put Manhattan to sleep.

Louisville’s performance will be cause for concern for Cards fans and anyone that bought into the hype and picked Rick Pitino’s club to make a run in the tournament. That’s what happens when a National Title favorite shoots 36.5% from the floor while their All-American, Smith, goes 3-for-9 with six turnovers.

But it’s important to remember here that Manhattan’s head coach, Steve Masiello, is about as close to Pitino as a coach can get. He was Pitino’s ball boy when Pitino was the head coach of the Knicks. He was a walk-on for Pitino at Kentucky. He was an assistant with the Cardinals for six years. And, as Pitino said after the game, his coaching style — the offense he runs, the defense he employs — is more similar to Pitino’s style than any other member of his coaching tree.

It got to the point that reporters court side at the game could hear Masiello calling out Louisville’s offenses and what they were running while they were running it.

That’s tough to play against, particularly when going up against a team that’s not going to be bothered by the things that Louisville does well.

As the saying goes, styles win the fight, and Manhattan’s style just so happened to match up well against Louisville.

And frankly, I’m more worried about the fact that Smith landed funny and played the second half with take on his thumb and wrist than I am worried about a close win over the Jaspers.

Louisville will advance to take on No. 5 Saint Louis, who erased a 14-point lead in the final five minutes to beat No. 12 N.C. State on Thursday afternoon.

Russ Smith, Luke Hancock each score 23 as Louisville survives SMU

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Through 20 minutes it looked like No. 12 Louisville was going to cruise to a double-digit win over SMU.

In the second half the Mustangs, who trailed by as many as 17 in the first half, fought back and cut into the deficit, keeping it at single-digits for the majority of the half. SMU kept it close until the game’s final moments when Montrezl Harrell put his stamp on the game game with an uncontested dunk before running back on defense — swatting a shot, then drawing a charge — to help the Cardinals pull out a 71-63 win over the Mustangs on Sunday afternoon.

SMU put forth a valiant effort in the second half, though the Ponies struggled to string together the necessary stops to cut it to a one-possession game. Luke Hancock scored 19 of his career-high 23 points in the second half, including 4-of-9 from behind the arc. All four of his 3-pointers came in the second half, many of them during important possessions for Louisville. The SMU defense continued to leave him enough space (or in some cases wide-open) for threes.

Russ Smith matched Hancock with a team-high 23 points along with seven assists, five rebounds and four steals. He helped force 10 of SMU’s 16 turnovers in the first half. The Louisville defense was much more aggressive in the first half, leading to transition buckets and a comfortable lead heading into the break.

SMU entered the game fresh off a win over No. 17 UConn — the first time the program had defeated a ranked opponent in a decade — while Louisville was looking to bounce back from a home loss to Memphis on Thursday. Sophomore guard Nic Moore was a big reason why the Mustangs upset the Huskies, but on Sunday afternoon he played limited in the first half after picking up two fouls, and ended the day 2-of-8 from the field for five points, five boards and four assists.

Moore looked to be out of sorts whether it was the Louisville defense or even an injury or illness. Moving forward, SMU — a team that could be on the bubble come Selection Sunday — will need more out of the transfer guard.

These two teams meet again on Mar. 5 at SMU.

American Conference Catchup: Louisville and Memphis reign

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source: Getty Images

College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Shabazz Napier, UConn

This decision really isn’t all that hard. Napier has led the Huskies to an 11-1 record this season. Included in those 11 wins are one possession victories over Boston College, Indiana, Florida and Maryland, three of which Napier’s heroics are directly responsible for. His numbers (15.5 points, 6.3 boards and 5.9 assists) would look a lot better if he didn’t play as passive as he does in games that UConn has control over.

All-Atlantic 10 First Team:

  • Shabazz Napier, UConn
  • Joe Jackson, Memphis
  • Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
  • Russ Smith, Louisville
  • Tashawn Thomas, Houston

Midseason Coach of the Year: Kevin Ollie, UConn

By the end of the year, I think that Josh Pastner will end up being the Coach of the Year in the American, but this far into the season, it’s Ollie’s honor. We’ll get into it more in a bit, but this UConn team is not as good as their record or ranking would indicate. And while much of that credit goes to Napier, Ollie’s been terrific this year in his own right.

Favorite: Louisville Cardinals

You can go ahead and write off Louisville with Chane Behanan’s suspension if you want, but I’m not going to. The biggest issue plaguing this team wasn’t something that Behanan provided. They needed more production from the supporting cast. They needed to have to rely less on Russ Smith and Chris Jones for production. Can this team win the national title? Maybe. I wouldn’t call them a favorite anymore. But I certainly wouldn’t think that they’re anything less than the best team in the AAC.

And three more contenders: 

  • The knock of Memphis during Josh Pastner’s tenure has been their inability to win the big one. They finally got a top 25 win against Oklahoma State this year and impressed in a loss to Florida in the Garden.
  • The bad news for UConn is that they have a front line that leaves much to be desired in terms of strength and rebounding. The good news? Neither Memphis or Louisville has an overpowering front line.
  • Are we overlooking Cincinnati? They have some scoring issues, but this group can defend and they have Sean Kilpatrick. And they are playing in a conference that it wide open after the top two. Things could be much worse for Mick Cronin’s club.

Most Surprising Team: Memphis Tigers

source: Getty ImagesOk, so it shouldn’t actually be a surprise that the Tigers are winning games. They are one of the most talented teams in the conference and were a preseason top 15 team. That said, this is a Memphis team that seemingly perennially disappointed in big games. Well, after getting mollywhopped by Oklahoma State on the road in their second game of the season, the Tigers bounced back to beat Marcus Smart and company in Florida and followed that up by putting together an arguably-more impressive performance in a loss to Florida in New York.

Most Disappointing Team: Temple Owls

We knew Temple was going to have a down year in 2014. They graduated quite a bit of talent, namely Khalif Wyatt, in a year that they made a move to a new, bigger conference. Having said that, this is still Temple and they are still coached by Fran Dunphy. Seeing them lose to the likes of Texas Southern at home will never not be a shock.

Most Important Player (in league play): Luke Hancock, Louisville

The thing that Louisville missed the most this season was a secondary scorer and perimeter shooting. Enter Luke Hancock. That’s what he does. Do you need me to queue up a video of the Final Four? Losing Chane Behanan won’t help matters, but the Cardinals are going to be just fine if they can get Hancock healthy and playing well.

Who will slide?: UConn Huskies

I love Shabazz Napier as much as anyone possibly can, but there is only so long that UConn can survive on his heroics. Look at what happened when Napier had an off-night against Stanford. Look at what happened when Napier had an slow half at Houston. The bottom-line is that this is a team with a young front line that relies on two unreliable players — Ryan Boatright and Deandre Daniels — as secondary scorers.

Who is the sleeper?: Houston Cougars

It’s not really a surprise that Houston is good this season. They have a bunch of talent, headlined by athletic big man Tashawn Thomas. What’s surprising is that the Cougars knocked off then-No. 17 UConn despite playing without L.J. Rose and Danuel House. If this team can get healthy, they have the pieces to make some noise in league play.

New Power Rankings

1. Louisville
2. Memphis
3. UConn
4. Cincinnati
5. SMU
6. Houston
7. UCF
8. Temple
9. South Florida
10. Rutgers

Luke Hancock back to form in Louisville’s 90-65 win over UCF?

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It’s been a difficult week for No. 14 Louisville.

The Cardinals suffered a 73-66 loss in Lexington to rival Kentucky. It only go worse on Monday when head coach Rick Pitino that forward Chane Behanan had been dismissed from the team. In addition to Behanan’s dismal, Pitino said junior guard Kevin Ware will likely redshirt this season.

Louisville responded to a challenging week with a 90-65 thrashing of Central Florida on the road to begin American Athletic Conference play on New Year’s Eve.

Russ Smith led all scorers with 24 points, connecting on six of Louisville’s season-high 14 threes. On the night, the Cards shot 52 percent from behind the arc against a pretty good perimeter defense. Smith had almost half of those threes with four more coming from Luke Hancock.

Hancock entered the game shooting a dismal 24 percent from behind the arc, including a 2-for-8 from deep against Kentucky. But the senior wing, who wore No. 32 for much of the game after his jersey was torn, connected on 4-of-9 from deep, scoring 16 points off the bench, the first time he registered double figures in five games.

He dealt with an injury for much of the preseason, which kept him out of the season opener. Despite struggling from behind the 3-point line, Hancock had remained aggressive offensively, drawing fouls, and getting to the free throw line. But when Hancock is stroking from deep, Louisville is a more dangerous team. Tuesday night was an indication that last season’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player is getting back to form.

Given the events of the last week, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

New Year’s Resolutions: Louisville Cardinals

Montrezl Harrell, James Michael McAdoo
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Over the course of the holiday week, we at College Basketball Talk will be detailing what we believe will be the New Year’s Resolutions of some of the nation’s most talented, most disappointing, and thoroughly enigmatic teams. What can we say, we’re in a giving mood.

Who else made Resolutions? Click here to find out.

WHAT DOES LOUISVILLE PROMISE TO DO MORE OF?: Play Mangok Mathiang

  • Why it will happen: I’m going to start this off by making one thing clear: we are picking nits here. Louisville is very, very good, especially defensively, and given the fact that they’re played just one tournament caliber team this season, it’s tough to truly get a gauge on just how good. That said, it’s to see what the biggest difference is for this group defensively: no Gorgui Dieng. What Dieng provided Louisville was an eraser around the rim, a guy that blocked or changed a lot of shots. That allowed Louisville’s perimeter defenders to be more aggressive gambling for steals. If they got beat, Dieng was their security blanket. Mathiang isn’t Dieng just yet, but he’s the best shot-blocker the Cardinals have on the roster.
  • Why it won’t happen: The Cardinals allow too many offensive rebounds and second chance points, a problem that will get worse as they face better front lines. Mathiang can block shots, but he’s not as good of a rebounder as Chane Behanan is. What made Dieng great is that he could do both. Mathiang may make some plays defensively, but I’m not sure Rick Pitino will be enamored with struggles ending defensive possessions.

WHAT DOES LOUISVILLE SWEAR THEY WILL DO LESS OF?: Luke Hancock’s missing threes

  • Why it will happen: Hancock is far too good of a three-point shooter to maintain the 25.0% clip at which he is hitting from beyond the arc this season. Last year’s Final Four MOP has yet to find his rhythm this season, although much of that is the result of an Achilles’ tendon injury that he suffered in the preseason. Hancock is still getting his legs under him this year.
  • Why it won’t happen: As poorly as Hancock has shot from deep, he’s actually been an efficient offensive player this year thanks to his ability to draw fouls and knock down free throws and the fact that he avoids turning the ball over. The Cards will be better when he’s hitting from beyond the arc, but there is not a pressing need for Hancock to find his stroke because he’s going to be getting playing either way.