Scouting Louisville: The Cardinals reached the Final Four last season not only through timely plays and Russ Smith's overcaffeinated brilliance, but because Rick Pitino unleashed the frightening power of the nation's best defense for five consecutive games. Louisville hasn't let up since. The Cardinals once again wield the best defense in the country, one that holds opponents to just 0.81 points per trip this season, and it has begun Big East play by locking down Seton Hall (58 points, 70 possessions), South Florida (38 points, 65 possessions, ouch), and UConn (58 points, 68 possessions).
What makes the Cardinals so hard to play? Ball pressure. Smith, Peyton Siva and rotation guard Kevin Ware pick up opposing ball handlers in the full court, mixing token pressure man-to-man with real press action. Once the ball is across half court, Louisville often stays in a tight man, but it also mixes in extended zones. The entire defensive M.O. is to force opposing guards to do something -- to make a dribble move they don't want to make, to enter an area of the court where they can be easily trapped, to collapse and swat and ball hawk at all times. This constant pressure and the impressive harassment skills (there's a new NBA draft totem: "is an expert harasser") of Louisville's guards have forced opponents to cough up the ball on 28.8 percent of their possessions this season, second only to Virginia Commonwealth in Division I hoops.
Of course, the work doesn't stop on the perimeter. When defenders do get past the first line of defense, center Gorgui Dieng, a shot-blocking force, is waiting there for them. As SI's Luke Winn showed (in handy chart format, of course) this week, Louisville has been much better before and after the wrist injury that caused Dieng to miss seven games. Plus, not playing like "13 Michael Jacksons" -- Pitino's words, not mine – probably helps, too.
The real difference between this season's Louisville team and last season's is offense. In 2011-12, the Cardinals were an occasionally watchable, often abysmal offensive team. This season, Smith is shooting just as often but playing much more efficiently, Siva is hitting more 3-pointers than ever before and, according to Synergy, the Cardinals are playing in transition on 19.5 percent of their possessions. When those turnovers equal easy buckets, and the Cardinals really get rolling, look out.
Scouting Syracuse: There have been plenty of surprises this season -- Illinois' first two months, Wichita State picking up right where it left off, Pittsburgh losing early Big East games at home, Minnesota morphing into the nation's best offensive rebounders, that time I went almost 48 hours without caffeine -- but for my money, Michael Carter-Williams has to be up there.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not surprised that he's good. A highly touted prospect who couldn't break into a loaded backcourt last season, Carter-Williams was one of the more hyped players in the country this summer -- everyone within a 100-mile radius of Syracuse shouted from the rooftops about how good he was going to be now, look out world, etc. etc. And he is. But Carter-Williams was supposed to be a shooting guard. He's 6-foot-6 and lanky, and he carries himself on the court as though he grew up watching Tracy McGrady in his heyday. But Carter-Williams isn't a shooting guard. He's a point guard. In fact, he's one of the two or three best point guards in the country.
Carter-Williams is currently fourth in the nation in assist rate; he finds a teammate for a finish on 46.9 percent of his possessions. He is not a tantalizing future-pro wing scorer, though that would be plenty. Instead, he is the undisputed engine of the Syracuse offense. Everything runs through him.
That, I think it's fair to say, is a surprise.
But for as good (and surprising!) as Carter-Williams has been, Syracuse's offense is not the true strength of the team. As usual, the Orange are at their best on the defensive end, where they've allowed only 0.82 points per trip -- second-best in the country behind Louisville. Carter-Williams has been excellent in this regard, too -- he forces 5.4 steals every 100 possessions, the 12th-highest rate of any player in the country. Like Louisville, Jim Boeheim's team extends its zone to challenge shooters, creates havoc in passing lanes, and converts easy buckets on the break.
In the long term, this is good news for Syracuse for reasons beyond the obvious. On Saturday, the school announced that forward James Southerland was indefinitely suspended (with reports later confirming the suspension was because of academics). Southerland was the Orange's most reliable scorer, a 6-foot-8 senior making 62 percent of his 2s and 37.5 percent of his 3s. Without him, Carter-Williams loses a favorite target, Syracuse loses its most versatile finisher, and the Orange may come to rely on their defense to grind out wins more than they would obviously prefer.
Louisville's keys to the matchup:
Make Carter-Williams' life miserable. (Paging Russ Smith.)
Force enough turnovers, and create enough fast breaks, to avoid playing against that 2-3 zone as much as possible.
Work the weak spots against the 2-3 with forward Chane Behanan.
Make enough shots to keep Syracuse honest.
Syracuse's keys to the matchup:
Take care of the ball.
Create turnovers and transition points without letting the game devolve into a track meet.
Dominate the offensive glass.
Make Louisville -- which shoots only 32.6 percent from deep -- make 3s.
Prediction: At home, with Southerland missing, the Cardinals should be the favorite. Let's say 74-68.
Meh. It's a guess. I feel much safer predicting an entertaining basketball game, one of many on tap this weekend.