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March 29, 2013

Bad news for Oregon: Cards' offense also clicking

INDIANAPOLIS -- The most prevelant thing opposing coaches talk about when the subject is Louisville's basketball team is defense, and that was the second question posed to Oregon coach Dana Altman during Thursday's NCAA press conferences here.

And for good reason. The top-seeded Cardinals (31-5), who will meet the No. 12 Ducks at 7:15 p.m. Friday in Lucas Oil Stadium in the semifinals of the Midwest Regional, are among the nation's best defensive teams, with their full-court pressure and turnover ration garnering the most attention.

But overlooked in UofL's recent surge and the love affair with its tenacious defense has been its effectiveness at the other end of the court. The Cards have suddenly found their shooting eyes and become an explosive offensive team as well.

In their most recent tournament victory, an 82-56 rout of Colorado State, the Cards shot 56 percent, including 5-of-9 3-pointers, and hit 15-of-18 free throws. Afterwards, UofL coach Rick Pitino said UofL's offense was "just as brilliant" as its defense.

In winning their three Big East Tournament games and two NCAA Tournament contests by an average of 21 points, the Cards have averaged 76.4 points, a six-point jump from their Big East regular-season outings. They're shooting 39 percent from 3-point range (32-82) -- seven percentage points better than their last 18 regular-season games -- and 49 percent overall, four percentage points better.

"We've just gotten hot," guard Kevin Ware says.

Yet Altman wasn't asked a single question about Louisville's offense, and he didn't volunteer any thoughts, spending most of his time on the podium talking about the problems Louisville's defense presents. He even suggested he was considering playing two point guards.

"That's something against Louisville that has to be an option," said Altman, whose team was last in the Pac-12 in turnovers at 15.1 per game. "That's something we've got to clean up a little bit, keep that number down to a manageable figure."

But back to the Cards' offense -- what has happened the last two weeks? The word the Cards most frequently used was 'confidence.' And, of course, they also credit their defense for creating turnovers that result in easy shots.

"I think our defensive pressure has picked up and our offense is fueled by our defense," forward Luke Hancock says. "I also think as we have watched more film, you notice where people are getting their shots and when guys will be open. Peyton (Siva) and Russ (Smith) are really focused in too."

Then Hancock couldn't resist a good-natured dig at teammates Chane Behanan and Smith, both of whom missed dunks against CSU.

"If Chane and Russ don't miss any more dunks, we'll be fine," Hancock said, shooting a glance at Behanan and saying it loud enough for him to hear.

Smith is UofL's leading scorer in postseason play, averaging 21.6 points per game. He's also been the best shooter among the perimeter players, hitting 52.3 percent overall -- an improvement of 10 percentage points -- and 48.0 from beyond the arc (12-of-25), compared to 34.1 percent earlier. Smith is the Cards' only double-figure scorer in tournament play, but six players are averaging six points or more, and five others besides Smith are shooting 50 percent or better from the field.

"I feel our defense is leading us to take good shots and we're very confident right now," Ware says. "When Russ gets going, he doesn't stop. Gorgui (Dieng) is setting up his shot and getting to the rim easier. Luke and I are shooting well. Our confidence is high and when we're hitting shots we're tough to beat because teams have so much trouble with our pressure defense."

The Louisville-Oregon survivor will meet the winner of the evening's second game between No. 2 Duke (29-5) and No. 3 Michigan State (27-8). UofL coach Rick Pitino is 10-0 in Sweet 16 games, including 4-0 at UofL, with an average winning margin of 22.0.

Both teams expect the game to be fast-paced, which is appropriate in the city best known for its Speedway and Indianapolis 500.

"It will be a track meet because both teams like to run," Behanan says. "More open, free play."

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