Louisville-Wake Forest Preview

It might look like Louisville is easing into ACC play against an opponent that’s had four straight down seasons and isn’t showing much evidence of progressing in 2014-15.

Wake Forest, though, has won two of its last three home games against the top 5, something it’ll try to extend Sunday night when welcoming the fifth-ranked Cardinals to one of college basketball’s deepest leagues.

Louisville (12-1) concluded non-conference play with Tuesday’s 63-48 home win over Long Beach State. Its shooting effort of 51.2 percent was a considerable improvement from the 25.9-percent mark in its 58-50 loss to Kentucky on Dec. 27, but with 16 turnovers and just three offensive rebounds, the Cardinals only generated 41 shots for their lowest total since 2007-08.

Still, coach Rick Pitino saw plenty to be pleased with as his team led by as much as 22.

"For 30 minutes, that is the best basketball we have played all year," Pitino said. "Then for a period in the second half, we hunted shots and didn’t pass it as well and we didn’t look as good."

Pitino left Chris Jones out of the starting lineup for flopping against Kentucky. The senior guard played nine minutes and didn’t attempt a shot, so his shooting issues remain a concern. He’s 11 for 43 (25.6 percent) over the past five games.

Those struggles haven’t trickled down to fellow guard Terry Rozier, who’s averaging 21.8 points in his last six after scoring 23 against Long Beach State. He’s also shooting 39.4 percent from 3-point range in those games after opening the season with a 25.0-percent mark through seven contests. That’s something the Cardinals – shooting 29.2 percent as a team from deep – sorely need.

How Louisville responds to a road game remains to be seen. Its only true away contest was a far-from-convincing 76-67 win at Western Kentucky on Dec. 20.

The Demon Deacons (8-6, 0-1) have yet to play a ranked team, but they ended last season’s home schedule with an 82-72 win over No. 4 Duke on March 5. This season, they’ve dropped home games to Iona, Delaware State and Minnesota.

Wake Forest squeezed in its ACC opener back on Dec. 6 at North Carolina State, falling 78-65. It’s since gone 4-1 with three straight wins, including Wednesday’s 80-66 home victory over Princeton.

The Demon Deacons made a season-high 10 3-pointers on 23 attempts, which is something they hope to continue against the ACC.

"We had a lot of our young guys out there and the ball movement was going and those guys were stepping up and making shots," first-year coach Danny Manning said. "We need those guys to make shots. One of the reasons they’re out there is to help stretch the defense."

Those young guys Manning is speaking of are freshmen Konstantinos Mitoglou, Mitchell Wilbekin and Cornelious Hudson, who combined for eight of the 3s. Mitoglou scored a team-high 15 points off the bench while Wilbekin and Hudson added 12 each.

It’s not a particularly threatening perimeter game with the team shooting 34.3 percent for the season and top scorers Codi Miller-McIntyre (13.1 points per game) and Devin Thomas (10.7) not providing major contributors to the outside attack.

The limited scoring has Manning hoping for defensive stability, but that wasn’t the case against North Carolina State as the Wolfpack shot 55.3 percent.

"We’re not a team that can trade buckets," Manning said. "We need to make sure that we have a little more emphasis on the defensive end."

Rebounding has been a strength. Wake Forest has a differential of plus-9.4 that ranks among the nation’s top 20 while limiting opponents to 7.8 offensive rebounds, which is among the best in the country. Louisville has a differential of plus-6.9.

The Cardinals have taken two of three in the all-time series, but they haven’t met since 1996.