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Louisville-Pitt preview: Cards shoot for 4-0 start to ACC play

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Jeff Capel and company will look to spoil the fun.

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Louisville Cardinals (9-4, 3-0) vs. Pittsburgh Panthers (5-8, 0-2)

Game Time: 7:01 p.m.

Location: KFC Yum Center: Louisville, Ky.

Television: ESPNU

Announcers: Mike Couzens (play-by-play) and Randolph Childress (analyst)

Favorite: Louisville by 12.5

Officials: Pat Driscoll, Jeffrey Anderson, Brent Hampton

Series: Louisville leads, 20-6

Last Meeting: Louisville won, 64-54, on Dec. 22, 2020 in Pittsburgh

Series History:

Possible Starting Lineups:

Statistics:

Pittsburgh’s Season to Date:

Relevant Videos:

About Pittsburgh:

Jeff Capel’s Panthers are once again struggling mightily as we enter the heart of ACC play. Pitt is just 5-8 overall with humbling losses to the likes of Monmouth, UMBC and The Citadel, and has lost its first two ACC games, each by a single point (at Virginia and vs. Notre Dame).

If you’re looking for reasons to believe that Pitt might be more of a challenge for Louisville Wednesday night than the 12.5-point spread would indicate, there are two routes you can go.

The first is to point out that the Panthers have been much better as of late. They’ve won three of their last five games, a span which includes a road win over a solid St. John’s squad. Additionally, their last four losses have come by a combined total of seven points, with three of those four defeats coming by a single point to power conference foes (Notre Dame, Virginia and Minnesota).

The second route centers around the possible return of Ithiel Horton. The junior guard has missed all 13 of Pitt’s games so far this season, but has been back at practice since Friday after criminal charges accusing him of punching a city police officer were dismissed last week. Horton averaged 8.9 ppg and shot 38.1 percent from three last season. Without him, the Panthers have ranked dead last in the ACC in field goal percentage (40.9%), and are shooting just 29.8 percent as a team from beyond the arc.

Unless Horton is in Pitt’s starting five, the Panthers will have five entirely different starters from their most recent game against Louisville last season. The Cardinals will likely start four different players than they did in that meeting.

The vast majority of Pitt’s production so far this season has come from its starting five, and that starts with 6’9 sophomore forward John Hugley. Like Malik Williams, Hugley has posted four double-doubles so far this season and currently leads Pitt in both scoring (14.8 ppg) and rebounding (7.9 rpg). Though he’s not the same player, Pitt runs its offense through Hugley a lot like Clemson ran its offense through versatile big man Aamir Simms the last couple of years.

“He’s a challenge,” Louisville head coach Chris Mack said about Hugley on Tuesday. “He’s certainly their focal point. He does a really good job. Hugley does a really good job of sealing in transition, really carving out space early. He’s a wide target, he’s got great hands.

“They run their offense a lot of times through him, and it ends up in a post-up. The majority of teams have tried to collapse, double, make him give it up, and he’s not a bad passer. He’s a very willing passer, he finds cutters, he finds shooters that space, so, that’s the rub. Do you want to play him single coverage, do you want to double him and sometimes create advantages for them that wouldn’t be there normally? So, we’ll probably mix it up. We have a good front court, we have multiple guys, but that doesn’t mean that the job will be any easier. It’s not something you see every day nowadays.”

The backcourt duo of sophomore Femi Odukale and Texas Tech transfer Jamarius Burton have done all they can to replace the production of departed stars Justin Champagnie, Au’Diese Toney and Xavier Johnson. Both players are averaging double figures and both have the potential to go for 20 or more on a given night. Odukale shoots it well enough from the outside, but he’s particularly effective attacking off the bounce. He’s likely to be yet another tough assignment for Jarrod West.

Mouhamadou Gueye, a 6’9 senior who transferred in from Stony Brook, is the other Panther to be wary of. He’s a versatile forward who has stepped up his production dramatically in recent weeks, scoring 14 points or more in each of Pitt’s last three games. He’s also connected on 6 of his last 12 three-point attempts for a Panther team that has struggled to find its touch from beyond the arc.

The one thing that Pitt does really well as a team is get to the free-throw line. The Panthers rank second in the entire country in free-throw rate, getting to the stripe on nearly half of their offensive possessions. The issue is what happens once they get there. As a team, Pitt is currently shooting just 66.2 percent from the charity stripe, good for 297th-best in the country.

The only other area where Pitt could give Louisville trouble is with its interior defense. The Panthers have been good at slowing down opposing frontcourt stars, and enter Wednesday night ranking 63rd in the country in block rate. Although he’s been outstanding recently, Malik Williams has to be cognizant of not forcing the issue against a team that defends much better in the paint than it does on the perimeter.

Notable:

—Louisville has won 16 of its last 17 games against Pitt. The Cards’ 89-86 overtime loss in January, 2019 snapped a 12-game winning streak against the Panthers and is their only loss in the series dating back to 2010.

—Pitt has held five of its past seven opponents to fewer than 60 points and are allowing just 59.3 points per game over that span.

—Louisville is off to a 3-0 start in conference play for just the second time since their national championship season of 2012-13. The Cards started 4-0 in conference play last season.

—Pitt has lost six consecutive ACC road games, but five of those six losses have come by seven points or fewer, including one by a single point at Virginia earlier this season.

—Chris Mack is 5-1 against Pitt as a head coach, including 3-1 at Louisville. His Xavier team defeated the Panthers in the second round of the 2010 NCAA tournament.

—Pitt is averaging 25.1 points in the paint and 15.2 points from the foul line per game. Interior scoring and foul shots have accounted for 65.9 percent (524-of-795) of the team’s points this season.

—Pitt has been out-rebounded in a game just one time this season. The Panthers rank among the ACC leaders in rebound margin (5th - +4.85), rebounds allowed (2nd - 31.31), offensive rebounds (5th - 10.77 orpg.) and offensive rebound percentage (3rd - .328).

—Louisville is unbeaten this season when out-rebounding its opponent (8-0).

—The Cardinals are also 8-0 this season when shooting a better field goal percentage than their opponents, and 7-0 when attempting more free-throws than their opponents.

—Wednesday will be “Hometown Heroes Night” at the KFC Yum Center. Louisville will celebrate local heroes, including healthcare workers, police officers, fire fighters, EMTs, and others. In addition to in-game attention to this group of essential workers, there will be a moment of silence prior to the national anthem for LMPD Officer Zachary Cottongim, who was struck and killed while working on Dec. 19. Cottingim had worked many U of L events during his career.

—Pitt has shot 20 or more free-throws in a game nine times and leads the ACC with 23.0 free-throw attempts per game.

According to DraftKings Sportsbook, Louisville is a 12.5-point favorite in this game. The Cardinals are 6-3 straight up as a favorite so far this season.

—Pitt’s John Hugley and Femi Odukale rank first and second, respectively, in the ACC in free-throw attempts per game. The tandem combines for 13.9 free throw attempts per contest.

—Louisville will play 10 games during the month of January, marking the first time it has played as many in that month since the 1997-98 season, when the Cardinals played 11 games in January.

—Louisville is 216-12 over the last 20 seasons and 13-0 over the last three when scoring 80 points or more.

—Louisville is 166-7 over the past 20 seasons when shooting 50 percent or better and 13-0 over the last three.

—Louisville is 34-3 over the last three seasons when scoring at least 71 points.

—Louisville is 14-0 over the past 10 seasons when limiting opponents to no more than one three-point field goal.

—Since 2004, Louisville is 130-0 when leading by more than 10 points at halftime.

—Louisville has won 162 consecutive games when holding an opponent under 50 points.

—Louisville has won 156 consecutive games when scoring at least 85 points in regulation.

—Louisville is one of only five schools to be ranked in the AP Top 25 poll at least once during each of the last 18 seasons (others: Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, & North Carolina).

Ken Pomeroy Prediction: Louisville 69, Pittsburgh 57