Louisville Scouting Report: Cardinals struggling, still best of the best

For teams that want to be considered contenders in their respective conference, the only true gauge is how said team competes against the stiffest tests. To date, Marquette has not played the top three teams in the Big East, according to standing: Syracuse, Louisville and St. John’s. That will change Sunday when it travels to the KFC Yum! Center to take on Rick Pitino and the Cardinals.

There’s one of two ways to look at Sunday’s contest: 1. The Cardinals have lost three of four and are reeling, or 2. The Cardinals are desperate for a quality win and can climb within .5 games of first place with a big win.

Whichever of the two scenarios comes true Sunday likely will coincide with the performance of guard Russ Smith. Perhaps the most exciting player in the country, Smith uses more than 33 percent of his team’s possessions while on the court and takes 35.3 percent of all shots when he’s on the court. Translated? The 28 minutes he’s on the floor, it’s his show. He also happens to be one of the better on-ball defenders in the league, and maybe the country.

Preseason Player of the Year Peyton Siva has been solid, but fouls and turnovers have limited his production of late. The senior point guard has been inconsistent from the field, but his assist totals pave the way for a talented group around him. As usual, his aggressive defense can get him in trouble but is a plus.

6-foot-11 center Gorgui Dieng‘s production is similar to last year, but that’s not an issue. The preseason Defensive Player of the Year is averaging 10.0 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.4 blocks, and he’s also drawing more fouls per 40 minutes. Last year Davante Gardner torched Dieng, and that matchup will go a long way toward Sunday’s outcome.

Davante Gardner took it to Gorgui Deing last year. Marquette needs a repeat of that Sunday afternoon.

Davante Gardner took it to Gorgui Deing last year. Marquette needs a repeat of that Sunday afternoon.

Face-up forward sophomore Chane Behanan continues to produce in his sophomore season. His rebounding numbers are terrific and, like Gardner, he’s drawing his fair share of fouls and getting to the free throw line. He’s a matchup nightmare — can score from 15-feet on in — and should see more than his standard 26.6 minutes per game.

Luke Hancock has been a bit of a disappointment in his first year with the Cardinals. The George Mason transfer is shooting just 35 percent from the field and grabbing just 2.9 rebounds per game, but the 6-foot-6 redshirt junior has good size helping his defense.

Freshman forward Montrezl Harrell has been consistent off the bench, averaging 6.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in 14 minutes the last four games. He has excellent size inside and has been a solid interior defender, making for another fresh defender on Gardner, Jamil Wilson and Steve Taylor.

6-foot-5 sophomore wing Wayne Blackshear (right shoulder) is expected to return after a one-game absence, and Kevin Ware, who was suspended indefinitely on Monday, returned to practice this week. It’s unknown whether the 6-foot-10 sophomore will play.

Reserve guard Tim Henderson saw 14 minutes against Pittsburgh in Blackshear’s absence, but if the sophomore is back in action Henderson likely won’t see legitimate minutes.

Where the Cardinals are good

— Despite the lack of success in Big East play lately, the Cardinals are the best defensive team in the conference, bar none. With Dieng, Behanan, Harrell, Smith and Siva, there’s just too many active players to find any weak holes in the lineup. They turn over teams, leading too much of their success, and few teams are able to get inside. Where they’ve been beat is opponents on the perimeter.

— Active wings and solid bigs have made the Cardinals a force on the offensive glass. On the season they are rebounding 38 percent of their misses — 23rd best in the country — with Dieng and Behanan ranking in the top-60 nationally.

Where the Cardinals can be beat

— Shot selection has been an issue, specifically for Siva and Smith. Those two are shooting 41.4 and 42.1 percent, respectively, while attempting the most shots on the team. An effective field goal percentage of 47.4 percent — including 30.5 percent from beyond the arc — is just seventh in the Big East, and luckily their defensive prowess has helped mask some of the offensive woes.

— In the last four games — three losses and a three-point win — Cardinal opponents have made 27-of-65 3-pointers (41.5 percent). Marquette may not have the firepower of last year on the perimeter, but it’s a glaring weakness in Louisville’s defense that can — and has been — exploited.

Three keys to the game

1. Get the outside game working, Vander and Todd

It’s a given on any night that Marquette’s outside shooting leads to offensive success, but Blue and Mayo need to be on their game. Before Mayo’s confusing absence the last two games, Mayo shot 6-for-15 from 3 the previous four games. Blue has hit from beyond the arc in nine straight games, and while the percentages are down lately he needs not to hesitate when given looks.

2. Davante Gardner, Pt. II

Last year Gardner scored 17 points in 18 minutes and got Gorgui Dieng in foul trouble — Dieng fouled out in 32 minutes and Gardner went 7-of-7 from the free throw line — in Marquette’s 74-63 win. For Marquette to have a chance tomorrow Gardner will need to come close to repeating those numbers, and if this year is any indication he should at least come close.

3. Keep up the D, Trent

Trent Lockett has improved offensively, but he’s going to continue proving his worth on the defensive end. With Behanan, Blackshear, Hancock and potentially Smith in the mix, Lockett will need to be versatile in his attack.

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