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January 19, 2013

Syracuse zone is a tall hurdle for Cardinals

Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino says this should a "fun weekend." Just how much fun remains to be seen.

It could be a rip-roaring time in the KFC Yum! Center if the top-ranked Cardinals (16-1, 4-0) emerge from their Big East Conference showdown Saturday afternoon with a win over No. 6 Syracuse (16-1, 4-0). Tipoff is at 4 p.m. on ESPN.

In his pre-game press conference Friday afternoon, Pitino called the Orange "one of the strongest teams to come into the KFC Yum! since it opened", and that's probably not an exaggeration. But UofL also has one of its best teams in recent years.

The survivor will take over sole possession of first place in the Big East Conference, at least for a few hours. Marquette, which plays at Cincinnat at 7 o'clock, would also be 5-0 with a victory.

"Without question, this will be the most emotional game we've had in a very long time," Pitino says. "This is going to be a really, really difficult game for us. We hope it's a difficult game for them."

A major key for the Cards will be how well they handle Syracuse's 2-3 zone, populated by a forest of tall and lengthy players that makes it hard to get the ball into the middle or get easy baskets in the paint.

Hitting shots from the perimeter could be a major factor for UofL, but Orange opponents are shooting only 35.4 percent, including just 27.6 from 3-point range, the former figure best in the conference and the latter second. Syracuse is also one of the best teams in the nation in blocked shots and steals.

Syracuse's front line measures 6-9, 6-9, 6-8 and its guards stand 6-6 and 6-4.

"What's difficult about them is the length of their guards," Pitino says. "They're long and they're very good, so not only do they make it very difficult getting the ball inside, but they go after the ball once it goes inside. If you put it down slow, or you don't ball fake and you bring it down low, they rake you and then the worst part of that is they're on a 3-on-1 or 2-on-1 break.

"Teams never shoot a real good percentage against Syracuse. They don't give you a whole lot, they create a lot of steals, they get on the break. Nobody shoots a very high percentage, that's not how you beat Syracuse."

How DO you beat them? "We'll find out tomorrow," he said.

Syracuse guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, who are combining for 26 points, with Carter-Williams leading the nation in assists with 9.4 per game, will face a challenge of their own against Louisville's backcourt duo of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva. They're each averaging 2.4 steals per game, tied for third in the conference. Syracuse coach calls Siva and Smith "probably the best backcourt in the country."

Carter-Williams says he is eager for the challenge. "They're a great team. They're talked about a lot. We're going to go into their house and bring it."


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