Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals have also had their share of highs and lows in their first three league encounters. Cincinnati shocked Louisville with a one-point win at Freedom Hall in both teams' league opener. Then Pitino's crew absolutely dominated a solid West Virginia squad, the same one that easily handled MU. And last weekend Louisville struggled to defeat a hapless Rutgers team that kept the game close until the final few minutes when UL finally pulled away.
The one constant for Louisville so far, not only in conference play but also throughout the season, has been excellent defense. Only three of 16 opponents have managed to score more than 70 points against the Cardinals, and in conference play they have allowed 58, 54, and 49 points, respectively, for a league-leading average of 53.7 ppg. Additionally, they rank third in field goal percentage defense at 38.3%, third in defensive rebounding at 26.7 per game, and third in blocks at 5.3 bpg.
Pitino employs full court presses, primarily zone but occasionally man-to-man, to keep the pressure on opposing guards. The Cardinals don't get many steals directly off the press, but they do make it more difficult for opponents to get into their offense. Plus, UL's press can wear down opposing teams late in the game, leading to both mental and physical mistakes.
UL plays almost exclusively zone defense in the half-court, but it's an aggressive, trapping zone. They not only double-team on the wing but also on the interior.
All three guards – Andre McGee, Edgar Sosa, and Wauwatosa East alumnus Jerry Smith – are extremely quick and active as are Terrence Williams and Earl Clark. Often-injured interior players Juan Palacios and David Padgett are not as quick as they used to be, but the former is still a good athlete, and the latter is long at 6'11" with a penchant for blocking shots. The final member of the usual eight-man rotation, Derrick Caracter, has progressed from being a poor defender who was plagued by foul problems to a mediocre defender who is still plagued by foul problems. However, since MU's centers rarely look for their own shot, this should be less of an issue in this game.
Offensively, Louisville has struggled. They presently rank fifteenth in scoring at 61.3 ppg, thirteenth in field goal percentage at 39.3%, and thirteenth in three-point field goal percentage at 27.6%. Plus, they rank twelfth in assists and eleventh in offensive rebounding.
If UL fans wanted to point fingers at the primary culprits behind the team's offensive woes – which many of them are doing – the primary targets would be Williams and Sosa as neither is scoring nearly as well as he did last year. However, no one has been a consistent go-to scorer for the Cardinals.
Starters and Top Reserves
Terrence Williams – the 6'6" junior is actually shooting higher percentages from both two-point and three-point territory than he did a year ago, but he's scoring less (11.6 ppg compared to 12.4 ppg). For three conference games he's averaging an astonishing 6.3 ppg on 6 of 27 shooting (22.2%). From behind the arc he's only 3 of 11 (27.2%). However, the native of Seattle has contributed in other ways: he's averaging 10.0 rpg in conference play with 11 boards against Cincinnati and 14 against Rutgers; and, he is averaging 4.3 apg.
Earl Clark – the 6'9" sophomore, like Williams, is extremely talented and very versatile. He can play the 2, 3, or 4 and could probably play either the 1 or the 5 in a pinch. For his size, he handles the ball well and is dangerous driving to the hoop. He can also post up, hit the mid-range jumper, and shoot from long range.
However, Clark has been in a shooting slump, as he's knocked down only 7 of his last 23 shots (30.4%) and is 0 of 3 from behind the arc in those three conference games. He is averaging a rather paltry 7.0 ppg in league games.
Where the sophomore from New Jersey has shone this year is on the boards. For all games he's averaging 9.8 rpg, good for second in the Big East. Nine times this year he's had 10+ rebounds in a game, including 12 against West Virginia.
When Clark is at the 4, Hayward will probably defend him. LH did an excellent job on Kurz of Notre Dame, but Clark is longer, quicker, and more athletic. It will be a real challenge keeping him off the boards.
Jerry Smith – the former Red Raider broke the hearts of MU players, coaches, and fans last year with a 30+ foot buzzer-beater to snatch victory out of almost certain defeat. The 6'4" sophomore guard possesses a well-rounded game, and he's been UL's most consistent performer since the New Year. He's scored in double figures in all three conference games, as well as against Kentucky and is averaging 15.5 during that time. In conference games he's made 17 of 31 shots (54.8%), though he's only 6 of 18 (33.3%) from behind the arc.
Smith does a bit of everything for UL on both sides of the court. It will be interesting to see if Coach Crean assigns McNeal to guard him or James. Because of Smith's height, it may be McNeal. Either way, MU will have its hands full since Smith can score from outside or take it to the hole.
Edgar Sosa – the 6'1" sophomore has been sharing time at point guard, averaging 23.7 mpg in three conference games. His scoring is down a bit this season to 8.1 ppg overall (from 11.4 ppg last season). In conference play he's averaging 8.7 ppg on 7 of 23 shots, though he appears to be finding his range from behind the arc as he's made 5 of 13 trey attempts (38.5%) in league play.
Pitino has been critical of Sosa at times this year, primarily because he wants his sophomore guard to focus more on being a distributor and less on looking for his own shot. Sosa certainly has the quickness and the ball skills to play that role for the Cardinals, but he has not yet developed into a natural point guard as evidenced by his averages of only 2.3 apg in league play and 1.9 apg for the season.
Either McNeal or James will match up with the smooth New York City product with Acker probably defending him when both are in the game.
Andre McGee – the other point guard for Pitino is not the scorer Sosa is; in fact, he is averaging only 2.3 ppg in 21.0 mpg in Big East play on 20% shooting (3 of 15), including only 1 of 7 from behind the arc.
The 5'10" junior is extremely quick, and he has solid ball skills, but he has never been a good shooter. When he's in the game, look for whoever is guarding him to double down whenever possible when the ball comes inside to one of UL's interior players.
Derrick Caracter – practically a legend since he was in eighth grade, Lazar Hayward's former teammate at Notre Dame Prep has as much overall potential – at least offensively – as any player in the Big East. Unfortunately for Pitino, Caracter's teammates, and UL fans, the multi-talented 6'8", 265 pound sophomore has had numerous, well-publicized issues that started even before he set foot on campus.
At times Caracter has been dominant. Earlier this year, against Brigham Young, he had 24 points and 11 rebounds in only 23 minutes. During a stretch of eight games, he scored in double figures seven times and averaged 8.25 rpg in just under 27 mpg.
However, in three conference games he's averaging only 5.0 ppg and 4.0 rpg in 16.0 mpg. Obviously, one reason he's playing fewer minutes is the return of fifth-year senior David Padgett following his recovery from a broken kneecap. But the sophomore from New York has also been his own worst enemy at times, lacking focus on both ends of the court and committing foolish fouls. Recently, he fouled out against Kentucky in 19 minutes and did the same against Rutgers in 20 minutes. Turnovers – nine in 48 minutes of league play – have also been a nemesis.
Many fans expect the former prodigy to declare for the NBA draft following this season. Should he do so, more than a few Cardinal fans will probably view his departure as addition by subtraction.
Still, when he's on the court Saturday, he will create problems for MU. He has the physical tools and size of Harangody, though he lacks the Notre Dame star's consistent focus and intensity. MU may well double him whenever he gets the ball down low, just as they did Harangody.
David Padgett – the 6'11" fifth-year senior missed six weeks following a broken knee cap, and he's still not 100%. However, that doesn't mean he hasn't played well. In three Big East contests he's averaged 10.3 ppg and 4.0 rpg in 23.3 mpg. He's also blocked five shots.
Offensively, the former Kansas Jayhawk has developed an excellent jump hook from the base line that is almost impossible to block. He is also adept at using the backboard on short, turn-around jumpers.
Defensively, Padgett was never very quick to begin with, and his lateral mobility has suffered through a series of injuries, but he still forces opponents to alter their shots when they come into the lane.
Barro is probably a little better match up against Padgett than Burke is, but both will certainly get their chance to try to neutralize the Cardinals' big man.
Juan Palacios – the native of Columbia, like Padgett, has confronted injuries each of the past three years. This season he has played in only seven games. His best game since returning to action came against Kentucky when he had 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in 34 minutes. In Big East play, he's averaged a very solid 6.7 ppg and 3.3 rpg in 16.7 mpg.
The 6'8" senior can score inside or from mid-range. He is especially dangerous along the baseline, though he is also very active on the offensive glass.
He presents an entirely different challenge at the 4 than Clark does. He's neither as quick as Clark, nor as athletic, but he has a more-developed sense of the game, and he's stronger. He also has a knack for energizing both his teammates and the crowd because of his hustle and overall work ethic. There is no question he is a leader on this team, regardless of how much court time he sees.
The Bottom Line
Winning on the road is never easy; winning a road game in the Big East is even more problematical. Playing a team with eight former Top 100 recruits in their own house is, without question, a daunting challenge.
The keys to the game are pretty much the same as they always are for MU – knocking down a decent percentage of three-point shots, holding its own on the boards, shutting down UL's offense with unrelenting defensive pressure, and forcing the Cardinals into turnovers that lead to easy transition baskets.
MU also has to hope that the Cardinals remain in a shooting slump and that their interior players don't get Marquette's post players in foul trouble.
This outcome of this game will probably be determined by which team manages to control tempo. If MU can score 70 points or more, it probably ends up with a W. A score in the low to mid-60s (or less) favors Louisville.
One possibility that should surprise no one who has followed this rivalry the past 10 years if it happens is the game being won or lost on a shot in the last few seconds. Maybe this time it will be McNeal or James or Hayward knocking it down instead of Jerry Smith.