LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Tournament basketball, they say, is a guard's game. If so, the University of Louisville is rounding into pretty good shape.
Russ Smith began the season as an All-American, and he should end it as an All-American. Chris Jones began the season as a scoring point guard who was trying his best to fit in with the hard-to-predict Smith. He has become a guard who can (almost) anticipate Smith's steps. Terry Rozier began his freshman season as a hard-nosed rebounder with steady instincts, good defense, and a distaste for turning the ball over. He now has scored in double-digits in four straight games.
Nobody is going to confuse Temple for a good team. But the Owls were coming off an overtime loss at Memphis two games before upsetting SMU in Philadelphia.
In Thursday night's 88-66 victory, those three U of L guards combined for these numbers: 52 points, 14 assists, nine steals, eight rebounds, 18-29 shooting from the field, 11-12 from the free-throw line and one turnover.
Rick Pitino said, "It seems like we're a better offensive team this year than last, and I'm not sure why that is."
One reason is that last season's team wasn't a great offensive team until the postseason began. It won last season with defense. It won a championship with its offense. Another reason is these three guards, their ability to limit turnovers, and to create offense off the dribble as well as the pass.
"We're starting to get a better feel for each other," Jones said. "And we feel like when one of us goes out, whoever comes in is going to put the pressure on."
Smith had 24 points Tuesday night, moving past Herbert Crook in ninth place and Louisville legend Charlie Tyra in eighth on the school's career scoring list. He had 11 of those points in the game's first five and a half minutes, but was beginning to break out of the offense and displeased Pitino, who played him only nine minutes in the half.
"I almost had a nervous breakdown with Russ in the first-half," Pitino said. ". . . Look, you have to give him his latitude, but the thing about it is Russ is having a great season. I know Doug McDermott will win the Player of the Year I might get upset with him but Russ is one of the top three players in the nation. It's just that he playing so great I just don't want him to revert back."
Rozier was steady all the way. He played his 15th turnover-free game of the season and finished with 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. He's averaging 14.8 points per game over his past four games, and is 13-of-18 from the field his past two.
Jones had four steals, eight assists, and in general was the catalyst. His game drew the highest praise of any player from Pitino after the game.
"I just thought he was very active," Pitino said. "I was really happy to see Terry give up a shot for Chris and Chris makes a three, and next time down Chris passes up a layup and gives Terry a dunk. You just like to see that, they both played terrific."
The three also have turned up their pressure defensively, both in the press and in keeping opposing ballhandlers out of the lane. They aren't to the point defensively where Peyton Siva was a year ago, or perhaps even where Kevin Ware was, but they have improved significantly over the past month.
Guard play may not be the biggest development on the team. That honor would go to Montrezl Harrell over the past month. He was a wrecking crew again Tuesday, scoring 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting from the field, while also continuing to emerge as an offensive facilitator.
He had a three-quarter court outlet pass to Rozier for a three-pointer on the break tonight. When asked if he could play quarterback, Harrell was quick to respond: "Yes. I played some football in high school. Tight end, defensive end and punter. But when I got to Hargrave (Military) the coaches said no more of that."
But guard play in March is important. And the month begins with back-to-back road games against ranked opponents -- Memphis on Saturday and SMU on Wednesday night. Tournament time has come. Pitino is 20-2 in March the past two seasons, and just finished a perfect February.
This U of L team still has some weaknesses it will have to overcome.
"We can't just roll the ball out there and beat anybody," Smith said, wearing a cap that read, Reckless. "We're a team that has to prepare, and we have to execute, and we have to play together. But we have a great coach who gets us ready, and we have great chemistry and great will to win. We look forward to this time of year."