With defense as centerpiece, Louisville rolls into tournament

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Earlier this season, it was easy to write off the beaten-up Louisville Cardinals. Despite beginning the season 12-0, their over-inflated bubble popped at the turn of the new year, when the then-No.4 Cardinals lost five of seven, including a 31-point loss to Providence.

We heard “overrated” and “injury-ridden” thrown around, and perhaps both were true. Louisville is not the fourth best team in the country, but by slipping back to No. 18, the Cardinals are right where they want to be: coming into the NCAA tournament as hot as any team in the country, yet still somewhat out of the national spotlight.

Connecticut showed the nation last season what can happen when a team with momentum gets its shot in the Big Dance.

Louisville’s path has its similarities. After losing three of their last four in the regular season, the Cardinals swept through the Big East tournament to win the championship and secure the automatic bid, and now get a shot at 13-seed Davidson at 1:40 Thurday afternoon in the Round of 64.

It begins with defense for Rick Pitino’s team. Louisville is in the Top 50 in the country at creating turnovers, and uses their pressure defense to allow just 61 points per game.

In the half-court, the credit defensively goes to center Gorgui Dieng. The Senegalese sophomore is one of the best shot blockers in the nation, swatting over three shots per game and changing a number more, those which don’t appear in the box score.

Louisville showed they could hold the fort without him, though, when he played just 22 minutes against Marquette because of foul trouble, which speaks to their defensive pressure and intensity. But, still, don’t underestimate the importance of Dieng and how brightly his value will shine through in the tournament.

The main concern for the Cardinals will be offensively, where they shoot just over 43% from the floor as a team. Long stretches of ineffective offense, like against Seton Hall in the Big East tournament when they shot 39% for the game, make it more difficult to trust them to make a deep run.

And that is why defense becomes so key. Louisville can ill afford to let a team get hot from the floor, as their offense may have trouble digging out of a hole.

Expect Pitino to use strong ball pressure to combat the cause, and maybe we’ll see another improbable run by an under-appreciated Big East champion in 2012.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_