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Matt Cross Emerging as Louisville's Early X-Factor

It might be extremely early in the 2021-22 season, but the Cardinals forward is already starting to establish himself as a potential X-Factor for Louisville.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When Matt Cross announced earlier this year that he would be transferring to Louisville, many fans were excited about the shooting potential he would be bringing to the Cardinals. It's hard not to see why, as he played a key role in Louisville's upset loss at Miami las January, scoring 16 points off the bench while going 4-6 on three-point attempts.

His ability to shoot the three-ball was certainly a welcome one for Louisville. The forward shot an even 40.0 percent from long-range last year, whereas Louisville could only muster 30.8 percent as a team - the worst mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference and 297th in D1.

Cross' shooting is undoubtedly his best trait, but leading up to the season, head coach Chris Mack noted that he was more than just a shooter. On several occasions, he commended the 6-foot-7, 225-pound wing for his toughness, ability to finish at the rim, and his defensive prowess.

We got our first taste of what Mack was talking about during the preseason in the Red-White Scrimmage and exhibitions against Kentucky State and West Georgia. The shooting was there, but Cross also showed that he could take contact on the drive, be a pest on defense, and even put on display his 'won't back down' demeanor.

Of course - and no disrespect to Kentucky State and West Georgia - anyone at this level of college basketball can look like an All-American when matched up against Division II talent. But so far in the early goings of the regular season, and by all means it is early, Cross is emerging as an X-Factor for this Cardinals squad.

Through Louisville's first three games of the season, Cross is Louisville's second-leading scorer at 11.0 points per game - behind only Noah Locke's 16.0 - despite coming off of the bench in every game. His 68.8 field goal percentage leads the team, as does his 62.5 three-point percentage.

In the season opener against Furman, he poured in a 15-point effort despite grotesquely dislocating a finger on his shooting hand just before halftime. In Louisville's most recent game against Navy, he went a perfect 4-of-4 on three-pointers. He also has four steals to his name so far in the young season.

"He's a really good player, not just a good shooter," acting head coach Mike Pegues said. "Matt is one kid that sticks his nose in there and we’ve got to get all five guys sticking their nose in there and hunting down long rebounds and contested balls, 50/50 balls. He's a kid that does that, he prides himself on that and we’ve got to get more guys valuing that aspect that of the game.”

What has emerged as his calling card outside of shooting, as Mack alluded to in the offseason, is his toughness. A competitive nature on both ends of the floor - particularly on defense, an unwillingness to back down from anyone, and the more-than-occasional trash talking.

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Pegues also lauds Cross for his ability to make "winning plays", such as the aforementioned 50/50 balls, tough rebounds and defensive efforts, and also things like making an extra pass or diving for a loose ball.

"Those things matter to him. He values that aspect, those aspects of the game," Pegues said. "If Matt is 4-for-4 and if there's a one more guy open in the corner, he is going to pass that ball to the guy in the corner 100 percent of the time.

Considering he's a tough, trash-talking sharpshooter from Massachusetts who wears No. 33, it hardly comes as a shock that Cross draws inspiration from Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird. The Beverly, Mass. Native models his game after Larry Legend, despite, even down to the trash talking.

"I'm always watching the highlights, and - probably something I shouldn't say - but his trash talking highlights are my favorite thing to watch," he said. "When I'm in the game and mindset, it just comes up to trash talk."

There are certainly times where this can come back to bite him, such as the technical he drew against Navy - although the official later admitted it was a quick whistle. But on a team where toughness is a bit of a question mark right now, Cross' attitude and mindset is just what they need.

Time will tell if he can keep up his good start against in uptick in competition when ACC play starts. But so far, there is reason to be excited about what Cross brings to Louisville, and he could continue to play a crucial role for the Cardinals as the season progresses.

(Photo of Matt Cross: Jamie Rhodes - USA TODAY Sports)

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