Editor's Early Preview (9/15):
Minnesota has gotten off to a perfect start, but their competition has been anything but outstanding. Still, its not like the Cardinals have been world-beaters so far. On a neutral court in Arizona, Louisville will definitely be favored, but you never know what to expect from Pitino's squad. Both teams feature good young talent that neutral fans will want to check out.
Preview & Prediction: By Douglas Phillabaum
Two accomplished coaches meet Saturday evening in this game between #9 Louisville (7-1) and Minnesota (9-0) on a neutral court out in Arizona. This game will be an opportunity for Big East fans to see if Louisville will challenge UConn and Pittsburgh at the top or battle it out with Notre Dame, Georgetown, Syracuse and Marquette in the middle. Coach Pitino of Louisville was personally embarassed by his team's poor showing against Western Kentucky (another netural site game) a few weeks ago, blogging that his team's effort, particularly on the boards, as lamentable and promising changes. Tubby Smith has a ring on his finger and a lot of goodwill from the Minnesota program, who hopes he can bring in big names like he did in Kentucky. Louisville's pre-conference schedule has been "cupcake city" as Dick Vitale would say, and 2 losses in the pre-Big East schedule would be both an embarassment and a problem with NCAA Tourney seeding. Minnesota has a lot less to prove and they should be loose for this game. In addition, Minnesota was one of the Big Ten's bright spot in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, easily handling an admittedly weak Virginia squad. In the past two weeks, Colton Iverson (6'10" freshman) and Ralph Sampson III (6'11" freshman) played impressively and showed that Minnesota should be a team on the upswing in coming years.
Louisville looks to newcomer Samardo Samuels when it needs points and Samuels has answered the call with 16 points per game. Samuels is regarded as one of the top four or five freshmen in the country, but his overall game has obvious weaknesses, including a tendency to have toughh nights at the charity stripe and to disappear for minutes at a time. The Western Kentucky was an example the latter: Samuels played 36 minutes but shot just 3/7 from the field. Louisville has a veteran supporting cast around Samuels, and Terrence Williams, Earl Clark, Preston Knowles, and Jerry Smith have all played in big games in the past. A good barometer of how well Louisville is playing is the balance in scoring, rebounding, and assists. When Louisville is hitting on all cylinders, Samuels, Williams, and Clark should reach 45 points and combine for 25 rebounds. Williams and Clark, despite being Forwards, are the best passers on the team and are vital to ensuring high percentage offensive opportunities.
The Golden Gophers will have their work cut out for themselves on the boards--the Gophers frankly don't have the bodies to match up with Louisville's trio in the paint. Further complicating matters, the Gophers are led by Larry Westbook, a slightly-built perimeter player who is at best an average shooter (40% on FGs for the season). Westbrook is joined in the back court by Al Nolen, whose 6.1 assists (vs. 1.8 turnovers) are impressive, but whose outside shooting also fails to stretch defenses. Damian Johnson and Ralph Sampson III are big players who can rebound and be efficient scorers, but they haven't been forced to run or defend the way Louisville will require. Johnson missed the first few games of the season but has been a strong defender (3.0 blocks, 1.8 steals) in the past 6 games. Sampson III has seen 20 mins/game of playing time in 3 of the last 4 games and has scored in double figures in each of those 3 contests. For Minnesota to have a chance to win, they'll need to contest every Louisville shot while keeping the fouls on their big men to a minimum. As a veteran team, expect Louisville to challenge these young frontcourt guys by pushing the ball and looking to draw fouls.
The first ten minutes of this game will tell you what you need to know about Louisville this year. With a far superior cast of talent, a focused Louisville team should replicate the kind of success they've shown in the past two weeks. The Cardinals should have learned by now to adjust on-the-fly to double teams which confounded them against WKU, a problem the team never resolved in the 2nd half despite the urgency of hitting the locker room with a tie score. As good as the talent is and as good as Pitino is at X's and O's, you can expect to see Louisville struggle to play as a cohesive unit at points. The question is, can they put everything together for at least 25 minutes and defeat Minnesota convincingly. All you really need to know about Louisville can be summed up with one statistic: entering Saturday, Louisville is actually the worst team in the Big East over the past three seasons in early season neutral-site games. The Cardinals have a Big East winning percentage of over .750 during the past three yrs, but in these neutral-site games their winning percentage is an appalling .167. Saturday, the Cardinals should win, but a Minnesota team with confidence and nothing to lose should keep it respectable. In the end, look for Louisville to pull out a win in the low double-digits. The biggest factor in the exact margin will be Louisville's ability to draw fouls from a less experienced Minnesota squad.
Winner: Louisville Margin: 8-12 pts
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About Douglas Phillabaum
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