Louisville’s Decisive Win Shows Progress, Shifts Scrutiny to MarquettePosted by Will Tucker on February 3rd, 2013
Marquette took the outright lead in the Big East when Syracuse lost at Pittsburgh on Saturday. That distinction was short-lived, as the Golden Eagles emerged from their game against Louisville the next day with a humbling 70-51 defeat and the league’s upper echelon nipping at their heels. Beneath Marquette and the slumping Orange suddenly lie four teams a half-game behind at 6-3, including the resurgent Cardinals. The game put to bed several of the lingering misgivings about whether Rick Pitino’s team had really turned a corner after its close win over Pitt last Monday. Rebounding and shooting percentage defense had been of particular concern. The win over the Panthers was a messy affair in which neither team could corral many defensive rebounds. It had also marked the third time in four games that the Cardinals gave up more than 44% shooting from beyond the arc.
Neither issue manifested against Marquette, though. After a vexing first five minutes in which Louisville failed to make a field goal, Pitino plugged in energetic backups Montrezl Harrell and Stephan Van Treese. In about 10 first-half minutes apiece, the big men combined to hit each of their three shots (all dunks) and grab five offensive rebounds. Their enthusiasm also lifted the play of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, who entered halftime with a cumulative 21 points, seven rebounds and six assists and would finish the game with 32 points on 12-of-24 shooting. Fundamentally sound rebounding from every position and stingy man-to-man defense catalyzed a 37-15 run that sent the Cardinals to halftime with a 14-point lead.
On paper, the most exciting match-up coming into the game was between Vander Blue and Russ Smith. Unfortunately for Marquette, not even Blue’s 17 points on 8-of-16 shooting could resuscitate his team’s anemic scoring and inability to keep Louisville off the offensive glass. Nor could Trent Lockett, who didn’t attempt a field goal for the first 15 minutes of the second half, mount any threat of a comeback with five of his 16 points coming in garbage time. The Golden Eagles shot 35.8% –– only against Cincinnati did they shoot a lower percentage –– and hit 3-of-13 (23.1%) from beyond the arc. Discounting Blue’s stat line, his teammates connected on fewer than 30% of their attempts from the field. Only in their blowout loss to Florida did Buzz Williams’ squad score at a less efficient clip, as they averaged 0.85 points per possession on Sunday. Limiting the open looks Louisville had granted opponents in the two weeks prior enabled the Cardinals to exploit its most prolific weapon: transition offense. The Cardinals manufactured double-figure fast-break points for the first time in five games, in large part thanks to 32 points off of Marquette turnovers.
Moreover, the Cardinals abused Marquette on the offensive glass: MU collected a season-low 42.3% of their defensive rebounding opportunities (in fact, it was their worst performance in that category since February 6, 2010, against Providence). Conversely, Louisville grabbed 59.1% of all rebounding opportunities, just a week after Pitino lamented his big men’s difficulties boxing out against Pitt. Five players grabbed two or more offensive rebounds, which allowed the Cardinals to score 18 second chance points. Buzz Williams attributed the transformation of Louisville’s frontcourt from serviceable to good offensive rebounders to a growing rapport with Russ Smith and his style: “They’re big, long, strong, fast, aggressive, and I think they have a pretty good feel that Russ Smith is going to shoot, when he’s going to shoot, so they know that the way they get touches it to chase after it and we did a really bad job of preventing that.”
In addition to resolving some uncertainty surrounding Louisville, the lopsided game raises legitimate questions about whether Marquette has the talent to win the Big East this year. Davante Gardner was once again saddled with foul trouble and only played 13 minutes on Sunday, and his absence was very noticeable amid the devastation Louisville wrought on the boards. But watching Marquette struggle against the Cardinals’ depth and athleticism underscored the point that Buzz Williams has none of last year’s transcendent talent to pick up the slack. There’s very little room for error when a key player isn’t producing, said Williams in his postgame talk. “We are not a one or two or three guy team. Collectively, we have to be the best all of us can be at one time.”
Despite impressive wins against Georgetown and at Pitt, it’s not unfair to characterize Marquette as beneficiaries of a back-loaded conference schedule. After playing five of their first seven Big East games at the Bradley Center, six of the Golden Eagles’ remaining 10 games will be on the road, including trips to Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova and Rutgers’ ever-daunting RAC. Buzz Williams’ team was projected to finish seventh at Big East Media Day, and it’s an entirely plausible scenario considering the bottleneck in the top half of the league.