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March 15, 2013

Preview: ND vs. Louisville

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Head coach: Rick Pitino (12th year at Louisville)  - 656-239 overall record in 27th season; 302-111 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.

Last meeting: Notre Dame and Louisville had gone to overtime in five of the previous six match-ups. This one never threatened to go past the standard 40 minutes.

Louisville took a 10-point lead into the locker room at halftime, and led by 13 early in the second half. The Irish would use the transition game to whittle the deficit to 45-40 with 12:40 remaining. But the Cardinals out-scored the Irish 26-12 over the next 10 minutes to claim a 73-57 victory in the KFC Yum! Center last Saturday, March 9.

Gorgui Dieng scored 20 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, swatted away five shots, and altered numerous others as his presence on the floor impacted virtually everything the Irish did offensively.

Starting Irish big men Jack Cooley and Tom Knight struggled. They combined for just nine points (seven by Cooley) on 4-of-12 shooting. Garrick Sherman was brilliant for the Irish, converting 7-of-9 shots and finishing with 14 points in 25 minutes.

Brey’s efforts to get guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant to take a more aggressive approach early in the game paid dividends, at least for Atkins. His two first-half three-pointers kept the Irish deficit to single digits most of the first 20 minutes.

But Grant - who scored 12 points in the final minute of regulation against Louisville on Feb. 9 - had just three free throws and no field goals in the first half. He finished 2-of-12 from the field.

“You only have one magic act a season, maybe in your career,” said Brey, referencing Grant’s late-game outburst against the Cardinals in Purcell Pavilion. “The last game was like this game. A couple of turnovers and we’re in a hole, only we had a miracle happen to get out of the hole or we would have been beaten by 12 up there.”

The Irish played the game without freshman Cam Biedscheid, who was suspended for his involvement in an altercation with Sir’Dominic Pointer of St. John’s. That necessitated Connaughton (13 points on 5-of-10 shooting in 32 minutes) to log additional time while freshman Austin Burgett played 14 minutes.

Although Peyton Siva and Russ Smith combined for a modest 18 points - they average 28 per game -- the Cardinals’ backcourt pestered Notre Dame for 40 minutes, forcing just 11 turnovers, but numerous forced shots at the end of the shot clock.

Russ Smith

Who’s hot:
 Russ Smith - The 6-foot-0, 165-pound senior scored 28 points in Thursday’s victory over Villanova. Smith hit 7-of-12 field-goal attempts, including 4-of-6 from three-point range in just 29 minutes. An 83 percent free-throw shooter, Smith converted 10-of-11 against the Wildcats. He also scored 18 points in recent games against Syracuse and Cincinnati. Notre Dame held him to five points on 2-of-8 shooting last weekend.

Gorgui Dieng - The 6-foot-11 difference-maker in the middle scored 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting against the Irish six days ago. Dieng grabbed nine rebounds, and averages eight per game. Dieng has 247 career blocked shots, including five against Notre Dame. Making Dieng even more dangerous is the ability to pop away from the bucket and hit the occasional jumper. He’s also a solid free-throw shooter (.681).

Luke Hancock - The 6-foot-6, 200-pound junior has become a three-point shooting weapon off the bench for the Cardinals. He hit a couple in four attempts last Saturday against the Irish while grabbing five rebounds, including three on the offensive end. He was 4-of-13 in the five-overtime game when he scored 22 points in 46 minutes. Hancock has made at least one three-pointer in 13 straight games.

Who’s not:
Chane Behanan - Maybe it’s unfair to expect more of a sophomore getting 27.0 minutes per game. After all, he averages 10.4 points and seven rebounds. He shoots 51 percent from the field and has an impressive 94 offensive rebounds, which accounts for the high shooting percentage. But he seems to be leaving some productivity on the court.

Yesterday against Villanova, he scored six points and grabbed two rebounds in 26 minutes. Against the Irish last weekend, he had seven points and three rebounds in 26 minutes. His 52.5 shooting percentage from the free-throw line is problematic at crunch time.

Mike Brey on Louisville:
“They’re really good. We just played them last Saturday. They’re playing with a great rhythm. We took care of the ball last Saturday, but their half-court defense is so good that it was hard to get a good shot. Many of the shots we took were turnovers. It was a struggle to get a good shot, and that’s where we’re really going to have to work.

“Last year in the semis, they turned us over in the first half and kind of broke us. First, you’ve got to get through that wave. We’ve really got to control tempo. We’ve got to shoot it well. We’ve shot it well here two nights. You’ve got to shoot over the top of their defense.

“Here we go again. When the games have been overtime, that’s when we’ve gotten our wins. When they’ve won, they’ve usually thumped us. So I hope it’s overtime.”

Prister’s take:
There were a lot of good match-ups for the Irish heading into Big East tournament. One of them was Rutgers and another was Marquette. Louisville? Not so much, but while an 8 ½-point favorite should at least win the game outright, it would not be a surprise if Notre Dame broke through its Big East tournament barrier and advanced to the championship game against the winner of No. 1 Georgetown versus No. 5 Syracuse.

Notre Dame is playing confident, poised, intelligent and opportunistic basketball. Eric Atkins had a solidifying effect on the offensive end of the court last night, even when Marquette took a 17-4 lead. It wasn’t that the Irish didn’t create shots for themselves. They just missed a lot of easy ones en route to a 2-of-17 start.

Jerian Grant played one of the most complete games of his career despite shooting 4-of-15 from the field, including 1-of-5 from three-point range. He scored 17 points with the help of 8-of-9 free throws. He also grabbed six rebounds, distributed six assists, and didn’t turn the ball over in 40 minutes of action.

The four big-man rotation employed by the Irish has been more effective than anyone could have anticipated. Once Brey made the commitment - after he was forced into it during the five-overtime game when Jack Cooley and Tom Knight fouled out - all four began to play well.

Cooley has cooled off, and Auguste is, like most freshman -- hit and miss. But Garrick Sherman has come up big against Louisville twice, and was nothing short of a game-changer in the victory over Marquette last night. Cooley has had difficulty finishing around the basket. But he had nine rebounds against Rutgers, seven at Louisville, and six in the second half alone against Marquette. He’s due for a breakout game, which could be difficult against Louisville’s length.

Knight was a difference-maker during conference play, particularly early in the game when the Irish sometimes have difficulty kick-starting the offense. He played at a star level against Rutgers Wednesday when he scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds. He is an ever-present offensive threat from 15 feet in.

Pat Connaughton is on fire and, perhaps just as importantly, aggressively seeking his shot. He is 12-of-18 from three-point range in the Big East tournament after making 42 three-pointers in the first 31 games of the season.

Connaughton also is penetrating off the dribble, which creates scoring opportunities for others. He has 72 assists in 1,058 minutes this year compared to 30 in 820 minutes last year.

One thing to keep an eye on is the fatigue factor with Atkins and Grant. If Cam Biedscheid isn’t going to give the Irish more than the 1-of-8 shooting in 16 minutes in the first two games of the tournament, Atkins and Grant cannot come off the court. Combined, they’ve logged 152 of a possible 160 minutes. They’ll likely have to play virtually all of the 80 minutes - or perhaps more - tonight.

Louisville is playing quality basketball, and they are a deep, athletic, long and physically imposing basketball team. To get a full appreciation of their physical assets, stand courtside and take a look at Gorgui Dieng, Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell, Luke Hancock and Stephan Van Treese. These guys are put together and know how to play basketball the Rick Pitino way.

Guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith set the tone. They pressure you from baseline to baseline, and they attack you on the offensive end without fear. They don’t always shoot it straight, especially away from the KFC Yum! Center. If Atkins and Grant can handle the in-your-face play of Siva and Smith, they could win the backcourt battle by out-shooting them.

Dieng is the rare ingredient that only a handful of teams in the country possess. He alters everything that happens in the paint on both ends of the court, and has an underrated, varied offensive game. When Chane Behanan is putting his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame to good use, he forms a powerful one-two punch up front with Dieng.

There are few more physically imposing freshmen in the country than 6-foot-8, 235-pound Montrezl Harrell, who averages a notable 5.4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game despite playing an average of just 16.6 minutes.

Luke Hancock is coming on strong from beyond the arc at the right time. He made 27 in an eight-game stretch late in the season. Stephen Van Treese pulled down eight rebounds Thursday night against Villanova.

In a perfect world, the Irish would get Dieng in foul trouble with the four-headed monster of Cooley-Knight-Sherman-Auguste. The fact is Dieng has only had as many as four fouls four times this year, and one of those was in the five-overtime game.

Notre Dame must handle the pressure and potential fatigue that could set in by playing its third straight tooth-and-nail battle. It’s rough enough handling Louisville’s pressure when you’re well rested.

Louisville turned over Marquette an incredible 26 times in last year’s Big East tournament match-up. The Cardinals turned Villanova over 18 times in the first half yesterday, and 25 times for the game. The Irish had 11 last Saturday at Louisville, a mere 18 in 65 minutes of action in the five-overtime game, and 12 times in the Big East tournament last year. Atkins and Grant are playing poised enough to continue this trend.

Add it all up and these are two very good basketball teams playing some of their best basketball of the year. For that reason alone, Notre Dame is a good wager. From the standpoint of whether the No. 6 seed is prepared to defeat the No. 2 seed, there are signs that the Irish are ready for this challenge.

Short of predicting another overtime game, the hunch here is that this will be another Notre Dame-Louisville classic. The Cardinals are good enough, well-coached and playing well enough to hand most teams in the country a double-digit loss - Notre Dame included. But the Irish are playing quality basketball in numerous key areas of the game.

Notre Dame’s maturity, tenacity, and well-coached unit of their own make this a battle to the finish. But the Irish can’t completely solve the match-up issues with the Cardinals, which tilts the game slightly in Louisville’s favor.


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