CRAWFORD | Defense winning championship hype for Cardinals - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Defense winning championship hype for Cardinals

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LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- When the University of Louisville defense is on its game, there are few shows in college basketball right now quite like it.

You cover this team, you'd better figure out a way to make defense exciting. Anybody got a catch-phrase for a good closeout? How about a rotation alliteration?

University of South Florida coach Stan Heath didn't need any fancy language after his team was bottled up in a 64-38 Cardinal victory on Saturday in the KFC Yum! Center. He just went with one little word.

"Wow," Heath said. "That was a wow. They're really good. They're a really good basketball team."

Heath's team was coming off an 11-point loss to Syracuse at home. But it couldn't do much with U of L at either end.

"(If) they keep improving, keep working," Heath said, "they're legitimate to win it all."

But don't take Heath's word for it. You don't even have to take my word for it. ESPN turned to five of its analysts on Friday to update their Final Four and national championship picks.

All five -- Jay Bilas, Fran Fraschilla, Seth Greenberg, Joe Lunardi and Miles Simon -- picked U of L to win the whole thing.

U of L's players know those kinds of things are being said about this team. They knew No. 1 Duke lost yesterday, bringing them perhaps a step closer to college basketball's No. 1 spot.

If Gorgui Dieng has anything to say about it, they are not paying attention. If Dieng could block this column from his teammates' Internet browsers, he'd hit the button.

"Why should we care about what anyone says?" Dieng says. "This team has not accomplished anything yet. We need to focus on a lot of other stuff."

Peyton Siva, who scored a team-high 17 points to become the 64th player to surpass the 1,000-point career mark, fell in line.

"Coach P. says all we need to worry about is defense," Siva said. "If we want to be No. 1, if we want to be a great team, we have to play great defense."

That wasn't exactly the focus of this team just a week ago. Then Pitino went ballistic at halftime of the Cards game at Seton Hall on Wednesday night. Nobody would say exactly what was said, but Pitino referred to it as, "a real nice meeting."

Since that nice meeting, U of L has given up 27.3 percent shooting over three halves of basketball.

That's nothing new. U of L did that plenty last season. But here's what's different this year. The Cardinals opened Saturday's game with about a dozen possessions of man-to-man defense. A year ago, the Cards -- while playing plenty of man-to-man out of a zone front -- played very little straight-up, old-fashioned, in-your-face man.

The ball pressure they were able to apply to South Florida and the man-to-man hounding got the Bulls uncomfortable from the start. They managed only six points in the game's first 11 minutes.

And the Cards have improved offensively, too. Siva's shot has improved. He could do little wrong in the first half on Saturday, teaming up with Russ Smith to stake the Cards to a 25-6 early lead.

And once South Florida was behind by that margin, there was no coming back.

Even Pitino had to smile afterward. He said that his team went into the Seton Hall game as a bunch of young man, and have emerged as a bunch of tough men.

"They came out the entire evening (Saturday) and played unbelievable defense, the type of defense we have been waiting for and wanted to see," Pitino said. "We are proud of our guys and they did a tremendous job tonight. I am really proud of Peyton Siva obviously, and the way he is playing."

In addition to Siva's scoring, the Cards got 12 points and 16 rebounds from Dieng, who posted his third straight double-double and continues to get better after being sidelined by a broken wrist. And Chane Behanan returned early from a high ankle sprain to add seven points and 12 rebounds in 17 minutes.

Now, USF isn't what you'd call a scoring machine. In fact, there are few teams in college basketball who do a better job of playing deliberately and keeping the game in the fifties or lower than the Bulls.

They did that successfully to upset U of L on Senior Night a season ago.

But the thing about wanting to play games in the fifties is this -- you have to be able to get to the fifties. And USF might've played all night without reaching 50 on Saturday.

"You just look individually at the improvements in a couple of guys and dang, they're just so much better," Heath said of the Cardinals. "Siva is making threes and that was not the case in the past. You could dare him to shoot it and you'd be okay with it. So, those are two things, the improvement in the players and I think the depth they have to keep bringing guys in and bringing guys in and bringing guys in. I think they're just really comfortable in their schemes on offense and defense -- changing their defense from man to zone and zone to man. When you've got younger guys out there and they haven't seen something like that before, it kind of takes them out of sync. They're very good. They are legitimate."

When they play that kind of defense, they're legitimately scary.

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