LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – The stifling defense played by Louisville during last year’s national championship run raised the bar high for current players.
The Cardinals have turned up the pressure again.
The second-seeded Cardinals enter Thursday’s American Athletic Conference quarterfinal against No. 7 seed Rutgers looking much like last year’s smothering squad.
Fifth-ranked Louisville (26-5) led the nation in turnover margin (plus-6.9 per game), ranked second in steals (10.0) and 26th in field-goal defense (39.7 percent) during the regular season. The Cardinals have held nine of their past 15 foes below 40 percent from the field.
Pressure defense is a Rick Pitino trademark, but the coach is glad his Cardinals are playing it at a time when each possession matters in their quest to repeat as national champions.
"We always had the potential to be a good defensive team, but we didn’t get it from a focus standpoint," Pitino said Tuesday of a roster that had to replace shot-blocking center Gorgui Dieng and career steals leader Peyton Siva from the title squad.
"We had two highly focused guys in Gorgui and Peyton and this was a very immature team emotionally. Sometimes, they were more concerned about whether you called a foul or didn’t call a foul. In the last two, three weeks they’ve just grown emotionally and that’s been a big key for us."
Part of that is due to the chemistry that has developed between senior guard Russ Smith, transfer Chris Jones and freshman Terry Rozier. Though Smith hasn’t been as automatic creating turnovers with Jones as he was with Siva, Louisville’s turnover margin and steals averages are close to last season’s numbers of plus-5.9 and 10.8.
Two recent games show how stifling the Cardinals can be. They held then-No. 7 Cincinnati to 28.6 percent shooting in a 58-57 victory Feb. 22 that eventually created a first-place tie in the AAC. The Bearcats won the coin flip for the No. 1 seeding in Memphis.
There was also Saturday’s 81-48 victory over then-No. 19 Connecticut in which Louisville scored 34 points off 22 turnovers and limited the Huskies to 29.4 percent from the field. As good as that effort was, Smith said afterward that the Cardinals can do even more.
"The defense was solid," Smith said. "There are some things we need to work on, there is room for improvement. There are things that will get better."
Growth is definitely needed if the Cardinals hope to claim their third straight conference tournament title.
Louisville’s bracket features schools it has already beaten twice. If the Cardinals get past Rutgers (12-20), a semifinal matchup looms against No. 3 seed and 25th-ranked SMU or No. 6 seed Houston, both of which they beat on the road down the stretch despite allowing the Mustangs to shoot 51.1 percent and the Cougars 45.8 percent.
Mindful that swept opponents can find the answer the third time around in a tournament’s compacted schedule, Pitino said he has been analyzing everything to find a different way to achieve the same outcome.
"A lot of people think you can’t beat a team three times," Pitino said. "It is true that the other team has an emotional edge, but if your team is emotionally ready and you understand that the other team lost twice and could make some changes because (they’ve been beaten) twice, if you understand that chess match, you’ll be ready and the better team will win. …
"You’ve got to anticipate the change and can’t say, ‘we’re better than them, we beat them twice.’ As long as you do those two things, you’ll be fine. If you don’t, you can get beat."
Rutgers has dropped nine in a row to Louisville, and the last loss was quite embarrassing. The Cardinals shot 55.7 percent, made a season-best 16 3-pointers and held the Scarlet Knights to 35.4 percent shooting in a 102-54 home win Feb. 16.
Rutgers advanced to the quarterfinals with a 72-68 win over No. 10 seed South Florida on Wednesday night. Kadeem Jack led four Scarlet Knights in double figures with 18 points in just his team’s second victory in eight games.
The Scarlet Knights have lost 15 straight against Top 25 teams, including seven times this season by an average of 16.3 points.