I. Renko is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Lexington after Thursday’s Second Round game between Louisville and North Carolina A&T. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
Three Key Takeaways:
- Louisville Went for the Knockout Punch Early — The Cardinals didn’t waste any time tonight, unleashing their full-court press early and often. By the 10-minute mark of the first half, they’d forced eight turnovers and led 25-7. That was all the margin that Louisville would need, as NC A&T never got any closer than 14 points the rest of the way. All told, Louisville’s press forced 27 turnovers, which the Cardinals converted into 34 points. The competition will get stiffer, but this kind of defense is what has made Louisville the team to beat.
- NC A&T’s Fighting Spirit — The odds that North Carolina A&T faced tonight were as long as any that March has to offer. Just 48 hours removed from their last game, with only a day to prepare for Louisville’s vaunted pressure defense, and in front of a rabidly pro-Louisville crowd, the Aggies showed tremendous heart just by competing for 40 minutes. After falling behind 25-7, they actually outscored Louisville over the next 15 minutes of the game, until the Cardinals reeled off a 14-0 run to effectively end the game. Kudos, too, to the NC A&T fans who made the trip to Louisville. Their enthusiastic support never wavered. We spend a lot of time in March celebrating the underdogs who win, but it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the ones who lose with dignity and determination.
- The ‘Ville Practiced Its Rebounding — You don’t want to overstate the point, given the quality of the competition, but Louisville had a strong performance in one area that has been a weakness for them this year — defensive rebounding. They pulled down almost 80 percent of the Aggies’ misses. Louisville tends to win despite this flaw, and it’s almost an accepted fact of their pressure/zone defense, but they need to be very wary about yielding too much in their next game. Each of their potential Third Round opponents (Colorado State, Missouri) is ranked in the top 10 in the nation in offensive rebounding and will be looking to pound the glass.
Star of the Game: I don’t think Russ Smith gets the attention and praise he deserves as the best player on the best team in the country (yes, he is the best player on the team). He was left off the USBWA’s and The Sporting News’ first and second All-American teams. A dominant performance may not not turn any heads, but it confirmed what many of us already knew about Smith’s ability. He led the attack tonight at both ends of the court, scoring 23 points on 10-of-16 field goal shooting and recording eight steals.