When Louisville and SMU first met this season in a matchup of one of the country’s best offenses against one of its top defenses, it was the Cardinals that prevailed.
Now the Mustangs will be looking to return the favor and keep their chances at a conference title alive as 18th-ranked SMU hosts No. 11 Louisville on Wednesday night.
The Cardinals (24-5, 13-3 American Athletic) are tied with No. 15 Cincinnati atop the league standings, while SMU is a game back in third place. Both clubs will be rooting for the Bearcats to lose to No. 20 Memphis on Thursday.
While Louisville could still afford a loss Wednesday and remain in the title hunt – albeit barely – the Mustangs (23-6, 12-4) would be knocked out of contention with a defeat.
The Cardinals, one of the nation’s highest scoring teams with 81.7 points per game, secured at least a season series tie with a 71-63 home win Jan. 12. Russ Smith and Luke Hancock each scored 23 while going a combined 7 of 14 from 3-point range. Louisville was 10 of 23 from long distance against SMU, which is limiting teams to 28.2 percent 3-point shooting since.
Louisville is trying to improve upon a 1-5 mark against ranked foes while avoiding its first consecutive losses. The Cardinals’ seven-game winning streak came to an end with a 72-66 loss at then-No. 21 Memphis on Saturday.
With Cincinnati losing earlier in the day at Connecticut, they squandered an opportunity to take sole possession of first place, though they appeared to be in control with an eight-point lead with less than five minutes left.
Memphis ended on a 15-1 run over the final 4:23 while Louisville missed its final eight shots, with seven of them from 3-point range. The Cardinals are shooting 25.0 percent from behind the arc over their last four games while making only 4.5 per game after previously shooting 37.9 percent with 8.4 makes per game.
"I knew we were in trouble when we went up seven, and our guys acted like junior high kids," coach Rick Pitino said. "I knew they weren’t focused to put the team away. That was very disappointing for a defending national champion to act like they just won the game being only up seven points on the road."
Montrezl Harrell scored a career-high 25 to go along with 12 rebounds and was 11 of 17 from the field, but his teammates were 14 for 46. Harrell has scored 21-plus four times in his last six games and is shooting 64.8 percent over his last four.
The Mustangs are closing in on their first NCAA tournament bid in 21 years, but coach Larry Brown wasn’t particularly thrilled with his club’s 70-55 win over UCF on Saturday.
"This ranking doesn’t mean anything to me right now," said Brown, whose team started by opening an 18-4 lead. "I’m proud of the fact that we’re in the top 25 in a lot of people’s eyes, but we’ve got a lot of things ahead of us and a lot of great opportunities. And we’ve got to do better than we did today."
SMU is one of the best defensive clubs in the country, limiting opponents to 36.9 percent shooting, and held the Knights to 37.5. Perhaps it was a letdown in Brown’s eyes considering the Mustangs limited UConn to 29.6 percent in last week’s 64-55 victory.
Leading scorer Nic Moore (14.1 ppg) was 2 for 8 with a season-low five points in the first matchup with the Cardinals.
Hancock, named the Most Outstanding Player at last year’s Final Four, is averaging just 9.5 points over his last four contests while shooting 33.3 percent from the field.
Louisville owns a 7-2 edge in the all-time series.