Saturday in Glendale at Arizona's Stadium Shootout (2:00 EST tip-off, Fox Sports Net), the Louisville Cardinals will face a hard-nosed, fundamentally sound, Tubby Smith coached team. And it's déjà vu all over again.
In less than two seasons, what the former Kentucky coach has done at a school more known for college hockey has been nothing short of amazing.
After a disastrous 2007 season which saw the Gophers win only nine games and coach Dan Monson quit at midseason, Smith has led Minnesota to a 30-14 record and a 10-0 start to this campaign.
Cardinal fans who expect to see the usual star power of Prince, Bogans, and Rondo will be mistaken. But what the Gophers lack in superstars, they make up for with the usual Tubby Smith trademarks: defense and rebounding.
For the season Smith's club is holding opponents to 38 percent shooting, 31 percent three-point shooting, out-rebounding opponents by a margin of four boards, averaging six blocked shots, and forcing 15 turnovers a game.
The interior strength for the Gophers comes from a three-pronged attack led by junior forward Damien Johnson and a pair of freshmen big men, Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III.
Adding to Minnesota's strength on the boards is the play of point guard Al Nolan, who is the team's second leading rebounder with 4.2 boards a game. The Minnesota offense is led by athletic two guard Lawrence Westbrook, who averages 14 points a game while shooting 42 percent from the field.
Louisville comes into the contest with only a 40-hour turn around after its late Thursday evening contest in Cincinnati against Ole Miss in the Big East-SEC Showdown.
Possible fatigue aside, Louisville needs three attributes, which have been missing at times this season, in order to secure a victory in the desert on Saturday: intensity, patience, and rebounding.
Often this season, the Cards have felt they could turn up the intensity when needed. At times this strategy has worked (Austin Peay); at times it has not (Western Kentucky).
From this game forward there are no more easy games for the Cards and it is time for the team—and in particular junior forward Earl Clark—to step up their intensity and play an entire 40 minutes the way they played the last 10 against Austin Peay.
When you face a Tubby Smith-led team, you can always expect to see his infamous ball-line defense at work. The Gophers will make an attempt to take away the Cardinals' outside shooting threats, which includes Jerry Smith, a streaking Preston Knowles, and a rejuvenated Terrence Williams (3-6 3PT against Austin Peay).
For the Cards to be successful they must play an inside-out game, working the ball inside to Samardo Samuels and Earl Clark, then reversing for open looks or taking whatever the defense gives them in the paint. Contested three's early in the shot clock is a recipe for disaster against any Tubby Smith coached team.
The Gophers rebound from all five positions on the floor and their second leading rebounder is a point guard. If the Cardinals simply rely on Clark and Williams to do most of the board work they might be in for a long evening.
Louisville needs improved rebounding from star center Samardo Samuels and the guards as well. If the Cardinals can win the battle of the boards it may be a long afternoon for Smith's team.
Neither Minnesota or Louisville has faced a team this season as talented or disciplined as the one they will face Saturday afternoon.
Gophers fans will see a Rick Pitino-coached team full of athletes that will want to play an open floor game and create chaos with their defense.
Louisville fans will see a fundamentally sound Tubby Smith-coached team attempt to force the Cards to grind out a half-court game with its stout defense.
Déjà vu all over again.
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