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Louisville takes command to knock out St. Louis, return to Sweet 16

Russ Smith, Louisville CardinalsRuss Smith and the Cardinals took awhile to play Rick Pitino's preferred style against the Billikens. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Louisville nearly got bounced from the NCAA tournament on Thursday by a Manhattan team that played exactly the same style as the Cardinals. On Friday, the defending national champions suggested the clash of styles between themselves and Saint Louis would make Saturday’s round of 32 matchup easier. And it would have been had Louisville decided to play its pressing, up-tempo scheme for the first 25 minutes.

Instead, the Cardinals allowed the Billikens to dictate the pace of play, and with 14:17 remaining, Saint Louis led by two, the teams had scored a combined 56 points and America – with no other game to watch until dinnertime on the East coast – had begun to nod off. To avoid an early exit, Louisville needed something Russdiculous to happen.

And it did. Shortly after a Rob Loe layup off a Louisville turnover gave the Billikens a 29-27 edge, Cardinals guard Russ Smith tied the score with a jumper. Then he hit two free throws to give Louisville the lead. Suddenly, the Cardinals looked like a Rick Pitino team again. They stretched their advantage with a pair of Luke Hancock three-pointers and cruised to a 66-51 win. With the win, the Cardinals advance to the Sweet 16. They’ll face the winner of Sunday’s Kentucky-Wichita State game on Friday in Indianapolis in the Midwest region.

The Billikens tried to negate Louisville’s interior superiority by pounding Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell every time he got the ball in the post. This typically would be a sound strategy because Harrell entered the game shooting 47.2 percent from the line, but it worked even better early Saturday because the officials let a lot of contact by both teams slide. Louisville’s guards struggled to make shots early, which only exacerbated the issue.

When the guards settled, everything got better for the Cardinals. Smith scored nine of his 11 after Saint Louis took its brief lead, and Chris Jones scored eight of his 11 during the same stretch. Hancock, who scored a game-high 21, also helped loosen the defense.

After Selection Sunday, the Cards became the poster boys for the battle between RPI-based seeding and advanced stats-based seeding. The latter suggested Louisville should have been a No. 1 seed. Now, the Cardinals will have a chance to prove the number-crunchers correct. Friday, they’ll face either undefeated Wichita State or in-state rival Kentucky, which has as many as eight first-round picks on its roster. (Louisville lost by seven to the Wildcats at Rupp Arena on Dec. 28.) If Louisville truly was the best team in the Indianapolis-bound Group of Death, it can prove it over the next eight days.

[si_video id="video_7F382443-8307-8EF3-1693-E59DB9BFE2B9" height="500"]

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