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St. John's vs Louisville Cardinals: Valentine's Day lovefest in the Bucket

St. John's try to bounce back from the loss to Syracuse - and Steve Lavin's absence - with a road trip to Louisville's pro style KFC Yum! Center... aka the Bucket.

Amir Garrett and company face another intimidating crowd on Thursday night.
Amir Garrett and company face another intimidating crowd on Thursday night.

No, it's not some classic rivalry.

But St. John's travels to face the Louisville Cardinals with a big-time win against a top-15 opponent in their sights, which will enhance the look of the team's NCAA Tournament resume.

Game Information

Tip Off: 9:00 PM Eastern
Vs. #12 Louisville Cardinals
(19-5, 7-4 Big East; coach, Rick Pitino)
KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, KY
(capacity: 22,500)
ESPN3 Radio: Bloomberg 1130
Announcers: Mike Patrick + Jimmy Dykes

St. John's will once again be without Coach Steve Lavin, who is in California with family after his father, Albert "Cap" Lavin, passed away on Sunday, February 10th [more].

The team will be piloted by Rico Hines in Louisville, former UCLA player under Lavin and longtime NBA assistant specializing in training and development.

St. John's is also without Jamal Branch, the passing point guard with defensive skills. He suffered an MCL sprain after Georgetown's Nate Lubick fell on his leg.

At Syracuse, a 77-58 loss, St. John's fell behind early, fought back in the middle, and couldn't close the gap late against the stifling defense of the Orange and against their quick transition scoring game. The Syracuse backcourt/ wing group of C.J. Fair, Michael Carter-Williams, and Brandon Triche combined for 50 of their 77 points, with wing James Southerland accounting for 13 more.

The day before, the Cardinals found themselves in what may be the game of the year against Notre Dame. Unable to stop Jerian Grant from scoring 12 points in the final minute of regulation play, Louisville found themselves in an exhausting quintuple-overtime dogfight where guard Russ Smith's Zone of Russ (see below) steered him wrong - into 1 on 4 drives, into a DEEP three with time enough to drive for a better shot or involve a teammate.

The game was epic, widely talked about, and frustrating for Louisville. Pitino's crew has four Big East losses in a year where pundits widely expected them to reach the Final Four.

Will they take their frustrations out on St. John's? Or will they come out hung over from the game, and give the Johnnies a chance to build on last week's win over Connecticut and start thinking realistically about the NCAA Tournament?

Mood music:
For your 90's grimey Brooklyn rap mood: Mobb Deep, "Temperature's Rising"
For your "what's this song about, exactly?" R&B mood: Aaliyah, "Rock the Boat"

Scouting Louisville

Dynamic point-creating pair.

Much like Connecticut, the Cardinals are powered by two quick guards, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, aka Russdiculous, the improbable guard out of Archbishop Molloy in Queens.

Siva (8.2 ppg, 6.3 assists/ g in Big East play) is a speedy, penetrating guard who makes mistakes. But his good moments collapse defenses and get teammates shots, including tall wings Wayne Blackshear (8.6 ppg) and Luke Hancock (7.9 ppg).

"Improbable" comes into play because Russ Smith (16.6 ppg, 2.5 apg) does wild things that coaches regularly bench players for. His ability to make off-balance shots, crazy drives against four defenders, threes from anywhere the invisible imp on his shoulder tells him to hoist them from.

He has voices in his head. He has the Zone of Russ, where wrong decisions become right, where up is down, where bad shots are good, and where coaches can't hate on him because he creates the chaos that makes the Louisville press hum. And he looks so gleeful and charming doing it.

Sir`Dominic Pointer will need to create his own Zone of Sir, where he takes his respect in the form of charges, blocks, and steals to disrupt the Louisville effort.

Dynamic defensive system.

The aforementioned press is the reason the Cardinals have what may be the most formidable defense in the land. The Cards force turnovers on 25% of opponent possessions - tops in the Big East, and one of the best marks in the land - and have supplemented turnovers with fearsome interior defense from Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan, among others.

Sometimes, the team can be wild with the ball. And when a team can force Louisville turnovers, they have to pounce.

If D`Angelo Harrison and Phil Greene IV get good open shots, they need to hit them efficiently, because Louisville reduces their opponents' chances to score. Efficiency has been a problem for both, with Harrison having gone 3/18 from outside the arc and 4/16 inside the arc in the past three games. In the same period, Greene has shot 3/13 beyond the arc, 8/27 inside the arc.

Marc-Antoine Bourgault's ability to find space and shoot (6/16 from three in past three games) will be useful if his teammates look for him spotted up on the perimeter.

Scouting St. John's

Smart offense = better defense.

In the halfcourt, the Red Storm are very good defensively. They force opponents to take a few more threes against the "amoeba" defense than they might like, and they make working the paint a struggle against the length of Chris Obekpa and JaKarr Sampson.

But when the Johnnies turn the ball over or miss deep shots, bad things happen.

St. John's often struggles to get good offense against zone defenses, and those mistakes end up in run outs. Louisville's extreme speed make protecting the ball and taking smart shots a priority; it's how Pitino's squad goes on "downhill" runs, where the deficit snowballs on opponents.

The ability to handle against pressure without Jamal Branch will once again be something to watch.

Chaos doesn't end with the first shot.

Louisville is the second-best offensive rebounding team in Big East play, grabbing 39% of their own misses. With the frequency that they miss shots in a bad stretch, that can lead to lots of put back and dunk opportunities for Dieng, Montrezl Harrell, and the rest of their hard-working big men.

Obekpa, Sampson, and Sir`Dominic Pointer have to find offensive rebounders despite playing zone defense.

Prediction: Coming off a sloppy five-overtime game against Notre Dame, will the Cardinals come out flat, or will they realize they need to sharpen their skills? If it's the latter, expect protracted scoring droughts and a 75-59 win for the home Cardinals.

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