Just like they planned it, right?
The Big East ends its regular season with an early peek at tournament-level play, as its #1 and #2 seeds meet for the regular season title Saturday at Verizon Center. While it's a big game, both teams will play on next week, and could see other a week from now. Until then, this is the game that demands attention.
No Big East team has been on a roll as has Louisville. The Cardinals started conference play 0-1 with what was then a shocking loss to Cincinnati. Since then, U of L has won 15 of 17, nine straight, and 10 of 12 overall on th road. Their success is no secret--it's defense, particularly on outside shooting.
Georgetown's 4-22 three point effort wasn't an anomaly for Louisville--they're holding opponents to 30% from the outside this season. Not many teams can say that, except, of course, Georgetown.
The rough and tumble Big East schedule has also allowed Georgetown to lock down opponents, especially late in games. Louisville earned the edge in the Feb. 9 game by getting ahead and staying there, and both teams know the value of closing the door in this one.
Louisville is adept at employing a wide degree of options offensively. On Feb. 9, Georgetown had shut down the Cardinals inside, and UofL was able to go outside to come back from eight down at the half (its largest deficit of the season) with the outside shot. Teams that focus on guard defense leave itself open to David Padgett going to work inside.
The teams are even across the board--underrated guard play, some up and down talent at forward, and workmanlike strength inside. And unless Rick Pitino returns with the white suit, it's likely to be a grinding, 40 minute game with an absence of showtime and an abundance of man on man action. These are traits which will suit each team well in NCAA play, but poses specific challenges to each in a game such as this.
Guard Andre McGee took over for Edgar Sosa about three weeks ago, giving Louisville more consistent scoring and consistent strong defense. With just five turnovers in his last 11 games, McGee isn't making mistakes, which is good for a Louisville offense that is prone to turnovers (12.6 a game). McGee 's start has allowed Sosa to come off the bench with a pair of big games against Pitt and Notre Dame in relief.
Jerry Smith had one of his best games down the stretch against the Hoyas last month and may do it again. Smith is shooting 53% from the field in conference play and 40% from three point range. If the Cardinals begin to struggle from the field, Smith can turn things around in a hurry.
Terrence Williams may be among the most underrated stars in the conference--he can do it all, but has yet to do so day in and day out. His 39 percent shooting has cut into his averages, but he is an excellent passer (with an 2:1 assist to turnover ratio) and the team's leader in rebounds. Free throws have been a problem (53%) but he averages only four attempts per game.
Like Williams, Earl Clark has a lot of assets to offer Louisville, even if thee point shooting (27%) isn't among them. Clark's minutes have decreased of late but like any of the starting five, he can pop for 20 any given night.
Louisville's likely selection for next week's first team honors is center david padgett, who has overcome injuries to establish himself inside for the Cardinals. His 68% shooting average gives Louisville steady offense inside--his 21 points against Pitt and 26 against Notre Dame were vital in those wins. Padgett has not fouled out of a game all season and that alone has been a stat that has allowed Louisville a lot of options late in games.
Here's a look at some potential matchup, and yes, while we'd like to see Tyler Crawford start, look for the same starting five for the Hoyas of late.
Jonathan Wallace vs. Andre McGee. Wallace's game has returned, and with it, the only consistent outside shooting georgetown has had in the second half of the season. MCGee replaced Edgar Sosa in the lineup and offers a slightly more up-tempo option than Sosa did. It's a good matchup for Wallace, if he can delver from outside.
Jessie Sapp vs. Jerry Smith. Two players going in opposite directions to end the season, Sapp's productivity has been in decline while opponents are picking up the pace--Smith's threes in the feb. 9 game were the catalyst that sent Louisville into the Top 25 to stay. If Louisville is to prevail, Smith will be at the forefront.
Patrick Ewing, Jr. vs. Terrence Williams. Ewing's defensive skills are better suited to Williams' style of play, and his 7 points and 7 rebounds Feb. 9 was a measure of consistency in that game. Georgetown's defense must limit Williams' second chance points and force him into foul trouble.
DaJuan Summers vs.Earl Clark . Summers did not play well last month against Clark's defense, a key factor in that game. Look for Summers to use better shot selection and try to work the ball inside to his advantage.
Roy Hibbert vs. David Padgett. The marquee matchup of the game, both figure to get their points but both must be careful not to get caught up in first half fouls. Look for both to be more aggressive on rebounds, where each collected only four apiece in the Feb. 9 game.
GU bench vs. Louisville bench. Advantage Louisville. While the cardinals have been getting the majority of scoring from its starters, Derrick Caracter (8.6) and Juan Palacios (6.0) could start on most Big East teams. Bench offense remains a late question mark for the Hoyas and
no player outside Ewing has shown consistent impact offensively.
Keys to the game:
1. Points per possession. Louisville has given up 50% shooting only once all season, in an early and unexpected loss to Seton Hall. Its ability to lock down opponents early helped paved the way for its current streak and it's a test for Georgetown to focus on high percentage shots and limited turnovers to get the lead that it needs.
2. Free throws. Averaging 20 attempts per game, Louisville is most effective when it keeps the opponent off the line, as it did when GU got only four attempts all evening on Feb. 9. Getting its players to the line is a sign UofL is penetrating Georgetown's interior defenses and putting key Georgetown players in foul trouble.
3. Points In The Paint. A concern from last month's game, Georgetown did its part inside defensively but could not give Hibbert help. Look for Summers to rediscover the interior game in this one.
For Louisville to win, it follows the keys that have guided it for the last nine games: limiting down opponent guard play, forcing bad shots, and utilizing its strength inside to take a lead and carry it home. Georgetown's strengths rely in bringing all five starters into the game, something it has not done consistently of late. If everyone is on the same page Saturday, the Hoyas will be especially tough.
Putting aside the senior accolades, the game is vital for seeding in the upcoming tournament, with NCAA implications as well. The Hoyas appeared to have learned the lessons from the Freedom Hall loss, and are ready to make their move. A neutral site game would be a toss-up, but the home court may be the difference in this one.