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February 9, 2013

Preview: Louisville @ ND

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Head coach: Rick Pitino (12th year at Louisville)  - 647-239 overall record in 27th season; 293-111 at Louisville. Led Providence to a 25-9 record in 1986-87, taking the Friars to the Final Four. Returned to the Final Four with Kentucky six years later - after a stint in the NBA with the New York Knicks - and then claimed the 1995-96 national championship with a 34-2 record. After serving as head coach and team president of the Boston Celtics, he returned to the college game, taking Louisville to the Final Four four years later. He did it again last year, and then fell to eventual national champion Kentucky.

You should know: That after a run to the Final Four a year ago, the Cardinals were the No. 1-ranked team in the country in mid-January before losing three straight to Syracuse (70-68), at Villanova (73-64), and at Georgetown (53-51). Since then, Louisville has defeated Pittsburgh (64-61) and Marquette (70-51) at home, and Providence (68-48) on the road…The Cardinals are third nationally in steals with 253 (11.0 per game). Six players have at least 20 steals, including 50 by Russ Smith and 49 by Peyton Siva…Louisville ranks 47th nationally in scoring at 73.6 points per game and 48th in field-goal percentage defense (.396)…Notre Dame and Louisville have gone to overtime seven of the last 13 and six of the last 10 times they've squared off. Notre Dame lost the first four overtime games, but is 2-1 in the last three…The Irish defeated Louisville on the road in two overtimes last January, 67-65, but then lost to the Cardinals in the semifinals of the Big East tournament, 64-50…Notre Dame has defeated Louisville three straight at Purcell Pavilion.
Top losses: Kyle Kuric (12.6 ppg., 4.2 rpg., 76 three-pointers), Chris Smith (9.7 ppg., 3.6 rpg., 67 three-pointers).

Russ Smith

Top players: The team's leading and most consistent scorer - and sometimes most erratic shooter -- is 6-foot-1, 165-pound junior Russ Smith, who is averaging 18.3 points per game while scoring at least 20 points in 10 of 23 games. Smith leads Louisville in three-pointers with 39. He also leads the team in steals with 50 and is shooting .806 from the free-throw line, including a 12-of-12 effort against Memphis. Overall, however, he is shooting just .409 from the field.

Joining Smith in the backcourt is 6-foot-0, 185-pound senior point guard Peyton Siva. Siva, who can play a bit recklessly himself, has turned in an impressive 141-to-67 assist-to-turnover ratio. He averages 10.6 points per game and is second to Smith in steals with 49. Siva is prone to shooting slumps (1-of-9 vs. Syracuse, 1-of-7 vs. Pittsburgh). But he's the catalyst of the explosive Louisville offense. He is the fastest player on the court every time he steps on it. Siva had 13 assists versus Villanova and 11 against Pittsburgh. He is an outstanding free-throw shooter at .869 (53-of-61).

Chane Behanan, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound sophomore, is a beast up front for the Cardinals. He's averaging 10.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, including 72 offensive caroms. Behanan averaged 11.4 points per game during the non-conference portion of the schedule, but just 8.7 since Big East play began. He had 12 rebounds against South Florida and 11 versus Syracuse. Behanan shoots just .547 (47-of-86) from the free-throw line.

Behanan teams with 6-foot-11, 245-pound junior Gorgui Dieng from Senegal to help form a potent frontline. Dieng only averages 6.6 shots per game and scores at an 8.9 rate. He also averages 9.8 rebounds (61 offensive) while accounting for nearly half (43) of Louisville's blocked shots and dozens of other altered ones. Dieng scored 16 points in Louisville's Big East tournament victory over the Irish last year. That's his season high for the 2012-13 season.

Wayne Blackshear, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound sophomore, averages 9.6 points per game while ranking second on the squad behind Smith in three-pointers with 34. Blackshear's .366 shooting from beyond the arc is tops among the most frequent three-point shooters for the Cardinals. Blackshear scored 17 points against Villanova, including 5-of-8 from three-point range, and 19 against Rutgers Wednesday when he made 7-of-11 shots in just 14 minutes.

Louisville gets help from some new faces since last year's Final Four run. Freshman Montrezl Harrell averages 6.3 points in just 17.6 minutes per game. The 6-foot-8, 235-pounder has an impressive 40 offensive rebounds, but is shooting just .541 (20-of-36) from the free-throw line.

Helping compensate for the loss of Kyle Kuric's long-range firepower is 6-foot-6, 200-pound junior Luke Hancock, who is third on the squad in three-pointers with 29 and averages 6.1 points per game.

Kevin Ware, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound sophomore, and Stephan Van Treese, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound junior, combine for another six points per game.

Brey on Louisville: "We came in Tuesday and watched a lot of our zone stuff against Syracuse. More of it was not good than good. But I felt we really needed a learning, teaching, watching situation because there is a lot of carryover (with Louisville).

"The one thing you've got to deal with is the pressure, the ball pressure, and two small guards that get up under you and really pressure the ball in the backcourt. That's my first concern as we prepare for Louisville. Once you get it across half court, you're dealing with their zone and there are things we need to do better and clean up against a 2-3 zone."

Brey on 6 of last 10 ND-Louisville games going into overtime: "Rick Pitino and I, in the summer and even before the game Saturday, one of us usually says, 'How many (overtimes) do we want to play tonight? One? Two?' It's like a running joke when we're recruiting in the summer. There have just been great games, really good games, hard played, and the kids really competing. I expect it to be that way Saturday night. I can't put my finger why it goes like that."

Prister's take: As disappointing as Monday's performance/effort against Syracuse was, if the Irish pull off another upset of Louisville, the loss to the Orange won't matter. The Irish would be on schedule with a 7-4 mark in the Big East, followed by winnable games at home against DePaul and at Providence next week.

That being said, the Irish are going to have to play one of their best games of the season to defeat the Cardinals, who have righted the ship against quality competition since dropping three straight.

Like Notre Dame, Louisville has struggled at the line at times. After losing a late lead at home against Syracuse, the Cardinals made just 12-of-24 from the free-throw line - including five straight misses and misses on the front end of two one-on-ones -- in a loss at Villanova. In the loss at Georgetown, Louisville made just 4-of-10 from the line in the second half.

But the Cardinals are back on track. Russ Smith, who was temporarily taken out of the starting lineup, scored 20 against Pittsburgh and spearheaded a 52 percent shooting performance by Louisville. They then blew out Marquette by 19 after trailing by eight early and leading by 23, and went on a 23-2 run at Rutgers to win by 20.

The Irish need to force Louisville into a poor shooting game and hope that the Cardinals have another struggle from the line on the road. Meanwhile, Notre Dame must take advantage of the free-throw line at home - which they've rarely done this season - while guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant must protect the basketball against one of the great turn-you-over teams in the country. Atkins, in particular, played tentatively against Syracuse's length at guard. Louisville doesn't do it with length at guard. They do it with quickness.

It would be an overreaction to call this a must win for the Irish since a loss to Louisville and wins over DePaul and Providence would leave them in good position in the Big East at 8-5. However, a three-game winning streak in this trio of games would virtually lock up an NCAA tournament bid by next weekend, barring a complete collapse over the final five games and in the Big East tournament.

Atkins and Grant have, for the better part of two seasons, responded well to off performances. Jack Cooley needs a typical big game, which won't be easy with Gorgui Dieng, who limited Cooley to just nine shots last March. Tom Knight has to team with Cooley to help neutralize Dieng and Chane Behanan. Yet a lineup with Cooley and Knight together puts the Irish at a disadvantage against Louisville's pressure.

In addition to having to control Louisville's lightning-quick guards, it's important that the Irish contain Behanan, who can take a game over on the inside. Significant contributions from the Cardinals' deep bench would be a blow to the Irish as well.

On paper, this says a Louisville victory, and yet the Irish are due for a magic moment at Purcell Pavilion. The ESPN GameDay setting creates a raucous atmosphere, and Notre Dame overcomes Louisville's superior athletic ability and Hall-of-Fame coach.

Pointspread: Louisville by 4 ½
Prister's Prediction: Notre Dame 77, Louisville 75
Prister's record: 18-5 straight up; 8-12 vs. points


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