Wildcats brace for No. 5 Louisville

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Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)

Playing against Louisville is never an appealing proposition. For head coach Jay Wright and Villanova, Tuesday’s clash with the No. 5 Cardinals at Wells Fargo Center (8 p.m., ESPN3) couldn’t come at a worse time.

“The only thing worse than playing Louisville at this time,” Wright said Monday, “is playing Louisville coming off a loss.”

Villanova coach Jay Wright leads the Wildcats against No. 5 Louisville on Tuesday (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Villanova coach Jay Wright leads the Wildcats against No. 5 Louisville on Tuesday (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Rick Pitino’s club has only lost twice this season, but its latest setback should have the Cardinals angry when they invade the Wildcats’ home away from home. Just five days after securing its second regular-season No. 1 ranking, Louisville (16-2, 4-1 Big East) dropped a heartbreaker at home to No. 3 Syracuse. Leading by two with a minute and a half remaining in regulation, the Cardinals didn’t score again, and lost 70-68 after a pair of crucial turnovers allowed the Orange to secure the first upset of a top-ranked squad on its home floor in four years.

Its perfect league record no longer intact, Wright expects Louisville to be plenty motivated to embark on another winning streak, starting with Tuesday’s clash against the Wildcats, who have lost three straight themselves.

“You know Coach Pitino is going to have them fired up,” Wright said. “But, you know, as tough as our last three games have been, we feel like we’re getting better. It’s not pretty, but we feel like we’re getting better. We’re fired up about this. We want this challenge, and we’ll see where we are. We get to play one of the top teams in the country. You know exactly where you are.”

Where Villanova is now is an unenviable position. Mired in a three-game skid, the Wildcats (11-7, 2-3) are stuck in the middle of their toughest stretch of the season. After Tuesday’s contest, Wright’s squad welcomes the Orange to Wells Fargo Center on Saturday and then travels to South Bend for a date with No. 24 Notre Dame, which has won 47 of its last 49 games at home. Despite the yearly gauntlet, soon to come to an end as the Big East disintegrates, Wright wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s part of being in the Big East,” the 12th-year coach said. “You never have to worry about getting up for games. Every game is meaningful…Everybody jokes about the schedule, but you love being in these games.”

A young team that struggles with turnovers, Villanova may not relish a matchup with the ball-hawking Cardinals.

“They score over 33 percent of their points off turnovers,” Wright said of Louisville. “For us, that’s not a good mixture.”

The Wildcats gave the ball away 25 times in Saturday’s loss at Providence, leading to 30 Friars points. On the season, Villanova turns it over on 23.3 percent of its offensive possessions, ranking 304th in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy. Louisville, meanwhile, forces turnovers on a whopping 28.6 percent of its defensive possessions, second only to VCU in that category. It doesn’t take advanced metrics to figure out that taking care of the ball is priority number one for Wright’s inexperienced outfit.

“Our guys have not lost confidence,” Wright said. “They really feel like they’re getting better. They look forward to a team that’s going to come after us. Turnovers have been a problem for us, but we’re working on it. Last game we gave up 30 turnovers and we lose by three. When we get better at playing together as a team and taking care of the ball, we’re going to have a better chance to win games.”

“I don’t think they cause any problems down low,” said sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova’s leading scorer at 13.3 points per game. “It’s just their pressure and the way that they play. They turn everybody over, and they transition right into their offense, so we just need to be solid with the ball and I think we’ll have a good chance.”

Darrun Hilliard (4) and the Villanova backcourt will have to take good care of the ball on Tuesday against Louisville (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Darrun Hilliard (4) and the Villanova backcourt will have to take good care of the ball on Tuesday against Louisville (Photo: Josh Verlin)

That’s not to say that the Cardinals are bereft of impactful interior players. Six-foot-eleven Junior center Gorgui Dieng (8.7 ppg, 10.2 rpg) is a shot-blocking machine, and has averaged 12 rebounds per game since coming back from a wrist injury on Dec. 29. Sophomore forward Chane Behanan (11.2, 7.7) is a double-double threat every night, Wayne Blackshear (8.9, 3.7) has six double-figure scoring outputs on the year, and freshman reserve Montrezl Harrell (6.5, 3.9) has given the Cardinals plenty of length and athleticism at the power forward spot. Despite some interior prowess, it all starts in the backcourt for Louisville.

In senior point guard Peyton Siva and junior Russ Smith, the Cardinals boast one of the nation’s top perimeter duos. The ultra-quick tandem produces steals at an alarming rate, with Smith (2.4 steals per game) and Siva (2.2) ranking third and fourth in the Big East in swipes. Smith (19.3 points per game) is also third in the conference in scoring, and has cemented himself as a national Player of the Year candidate at the season’s mid-point. Siva (11.3 ppg, 5.7 apg), is fourth in the league in assists and third in free-throw percentage (.885). Against Louisville’s relentless pressure, the Wildcats’ own guard tandem of Ryan Arcidiacono and Darrun Hilliard knows it has to treat every possession with care.

“We’ve got to take care of the ball and do what we do,” Hilliard said. “As long as we play solid and be strong with the ball, I think we’ll be fine.”

Desperate to put an end to their longest losing streak of the season, the Wildcats shouldn’t lack for motivation playing against a top-five opponent in a professional arena. That isn’t to say, however, that they’re treating it any differently than they would any other game.

“I don’t think it’s about motivation,” Pinkston said. “It’s about coming out and being ready to play Villanova basketball.

“I think any game will help us, not just this one because they’re a top-five team. You always want to come out and play Villanova basketball. I think that’s what we’re going to do tomorrow.”

If they have designs on pulling the upset against the Cardinals, who opened as 12-point favorites, the Wildcats will need contributions from everyone, especially a pair of struggling veterans. Senior forward Mouphtaou Yarou (7.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) is coming off his only scoreless game of the season at Providence. And junior swingman James Bell (9.2, 4.4) has been mired in a shooting slump that has spanned several weeks. The Orlando native is 8-for-35 (22.9%) from the field over his last six games, and has been held to five points or fewer in five of those contests. Bell, however, pulled down 13 rebounds to go along with 14 points against the Cardinals a year ago.

Most outside observers are quick to focus on Louisville’s lofty ranking. To the Wildcats, the ranking is just a number, the Cardinals just another opponent. As long as they play ‘Villanova basketball,’ they say, the opponent is irrelevant.

“It’s a real exciting game, but we don’t want to think of it like that just because they’re a top-five team,” Hilliard said. “We come in every day, work hard, and play Villanova basketball. That’s what Coach stresses to us: just come in and play Villanova basketball, and we’ll be fine. The opponent doesn’t matter. We just have to do what we do.”

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