Despite earlier win, Villanova to have hands full with Louisville

Louisville coach Rick Pitino. (Kevin Rivoli/AP file photo)

Now that Villanova has all but wrapped up an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament following its 66-53 victory over St. John’s, it gets another chance to play fourth-ranked Louisville, this time in Thursday night’s quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden.

The Wildcats (20-12) picked up their first of three wins over Top 5 teams on Jan. 22 when they defeated the Cardinals 73-64 at the Wells Fargo Center. They placed five players in double figures and weren’t affected too badly by 19 turnovers against Louisville’s pressing defense.

“That game definitely was important for us,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We knew we were getting a lot better. Winning is just … it justifies everything you’re teaching the guys. It gives the guys confidence in what you’re doing. So that game was big for us.”

However, the Cardinals did as much to hurt themselves as Villanova did.

Louisville sank just 12 free throws in 24 attempts, going 7-for-18 in the second half. When Villanova went on a 13-1 second-half run to turn a six-point deficit into a six-point lead, the Cardinals missed seven of eight free throws, including the front ends of two 1-and-1’s.

Russ Smith, the Big East’s second-leading scorer during the regular season at nearly 18 points per game, shot just two of 13 and scored only eight points.

“They were coming off a loss to Syracuse at home and then came into our place,” Wright said. “I don’t think they were playing real well at that time. I don’t care; I’ll take (the victory). I’ll take it any time. I think they’re playing a lot better right now. I think they’re really hot. I expect a great game from them.”

The Cardinals (26-5, 14-4 Big East), who finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Big East and are seeded second in the tournament, are on a run of seven straight wins. They already have avenged two of their conference losses, to Syracuse and Notre Dame, this season.

The Wildcats must be careful that their deficiencies during the season – turnovers and defending the three-point shot – don’t factor into this game.

The Cardinals lead the Big East in forced turnovers with an 18.5 average, 16.8 against Big East opponents. While they don’t shoot the three particularly well (32.3 percent), they have four players who have hit more than 30 deep baskets on the season and will test the Cats’ perimeter defenders.

Louisville’s best three-point shooter is senior Luke Hancock, who shoots 43.2 percent from beyond the arc in conference games, and is a familiar name to devoted ‘Nova followers. It was Hancock, playing for George Mason in 2011, who hit the game-winning three-ball with 19.8 seconds left that sent the Wildcats down to a first-round defeat in the NCAA tournament.

--Joe Juliano