Louisville coach Rick Pitino admits he doesn’t know what he’s going to get from guard Russ Smith on a game-to-game basis offensively.
If the sophomore can deliver again Monday, the 23rd-ranked Cardinals could be in good shape against a No. 21 Marquette team trying to sweep a three-game Big East homestand.
Smith got the starting assignment Saturday against DePaul with leading scorer Kyle Kuric sidelined due to a high left ankle sprain. Despite going 0 for 7 from 3-point range, Smith finished with 25 points on 10-of-22 shooting as Louisville (14-4, 2-3) pulled away for a 76-59 victory and avoided a third straight home loss.
“All I want Russ to do is play defense hard,” Pitino said. “If he starts evaluating what’s a good shot and what is a bad shot you take away his skill level. Our offense is Russ Smith playing in the middle of a playground in Queens.”
Despite the victory, the Cardinals tumbled nine spots in the poll in part to their 90-59 drubbing by Providence last Tuesday.
Smith averages 12.2 points but has had feast-or-famine performances all season. He has scored three or fewer points four times - combining to shoot 3 for 22 in those games - but also has contributed at least 23 points in four contests.
Pitino feels point guard Peyton Siva - who had seven assists, six steals and six turnovers Saturday - may be equally crucial to Louisville’s success against Marquette.
“They don’t give you an easy bucket,” the coach said. “If you dribble in any close areas, they strip you. You have to keep them out of transition, so passing is a premium play against Marquette. It’s the opposite against DePaul. Marquette smells blood and they go after the ball.”
The Golden Eagles (14-4, 3-2) displayed that mindset in a 62-57 win Saturday that kept perennial power Pittsburgh winless in Big East play. Freshman Todd Mayo had nine points and seven rebounds off the bench, but it was his defensive work in Marquette’s three-quarter-court press during a 13-0 second-half run that earned his coach’s praise.
“His defensive pressure was superb,” Buzz Williams said. “I thought we were able to hang in there in a grind-it-out game. We’re very thankful for this win.”
Seniors Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder scored 18 and 15 points, respectively, and combined to hit six of Marquette’s seven 3-pointers.
Both players struggled, though, in two losses to the Cardinals last season. Johnson-Odom totaled 29 points on 8-for-27 (29.6 percent) shooting, while Crowder was held to 18 combined points while shooting 35.0 percent (7 for 20).
While the Golden Eagles have posted back-to-back wins to shake off road losses at Georgetown and Syracuse, they have concerns about slow starts. Marquette, which trailed 37-19 at halftime at Syracuse on Jan. 7, trailed St. John’s by one at halftime Wednesday and was down five to the Panthers after 20 minutes before regrouping.
“Maybe everyone needs to wake up and splash some water on their face before the game,” said sophomore forward Jamil Wilson. “We need to get loose and into a rhythm and stop starting games so slow.”
Louisville rallied for a 71-70 home victory over the Golden Eagles last season, overcoming an 18-point deficit in the final 5:44. The Cardinals then pounded a Marquette team playing its third game in three days 81-56 in the Big East quarterfinals, their sixth win in the last seven games in the series.
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