INDIANAPOLIS -- The best way to explain how good the Louisville pressure is right now? The Cardinals can’t even break it in their own practices.
"We have a tough time when we go up against it," Gorgui Dieng said. "And we know what’s coming."
Rick Pitino has made pesky defense his calling card since the day he broke into coaching, and while the coach has had better, more talented teams, it’s hard to imagine one clicking the way the Cards are as they head into the Sweet 16 game against Oregon on Friday (7:15 p.m. ET).
Since a five-overtime loss to Notre Dame, UL is beating teams by an average of 21 points per game. No one has gotten closer than 12 points. And that’s including the Big East tournament and two games in the NCAA tournament.
In a season that has had a distinct aversion to dominance, Louisville is about the closest thing right now. One No. 1 seed is gone; one struggled in two games; one struggled in its Round of 32 game.
Louisville hasn’t broken a sweat.
"I think it’s a fair statement [to say we’re playing our best right now]," Russ Smith said. "Coach has really gotten us focused after that loss."
Not that the Cards’ coach will say so. To hear Pitino tell it, Louisville is a good team about to go up against the Dream Team. Pitino continued his parade of praise directed at the Ducks on Thursday, insisting that this will be a "very close game."
It may well be and he may well mean it, but veteran Pitino watchers will tell you that his poor-mouthing of his own team and praise of an opponent often results in a proportionally opposite winning margin.
Which means Oregon could be in for it. And coach Dana Altman knows it.
"We had two games in the NCAA tournament where we turned it over 18 times each night," Altman said. "We’ve got to figure out what the number is that we can live with. I’m hoping 15, 16 is a number we can hold it to."
If that sounds fatalistic, well, it’s probably more realistic. Louisville’s defense is not something you beat so much as you hope to survive.
That goes for Cardinals players, too. The end product now is a thing of disruptive beauty, but the process -- how the sausage is made, so to speak -- isn’t always so lovely.
Rare is the player who comes out of high school committed to playing good defense; nonexistent is the recent grad prepared for Pitino.
"Coach Pitino has never had a perfect player," Luke Hancock said. "So it’s an ongoing process. I think even some four-year guys make mistakes."
Fewer and fewer, it would seem lately.
Louisville has forced 47 turnovers in its first two tourney games -- swiping a tourney-record 20 steals against North Carolina A&T alone.
"I think they’ll have a harder time guarding our half-court stuff," Oregon forward Arsalan Kazemi said. "It’s just a matter of getting the ball across the court."
Which sounds easier than it is.
Ask Gorgui Dieng.
WHO TO WATCH
Louisville’s Chane Behanan (with help from Dieng): One of Oregon’s biggest strengths is on the boards, where the Ducks rank 20th in the nation in rebounding margin. Much of that comes on the back of Kazemi, who averages 9.6 rebounds per game. Behanan and Dieng have to negate that advantage, especially limiting UO’s offensive rebounding.
Oregon’s Dominic Artis: The freshman’s return has made all the difference for the Ducks, who are 21-4 with him in the lineup. He’s been sensational all season, but he has never faced pressure like he’ll see from the Cardinals, never faced anyone quite so quick as Russ Smith. How he handles the frenzy Louisville promises to deliver will determine how well Oregon does.
WHAT TO WATCH
Deflections and turnovers. This isn’t complicated. Louisville has made its living this season off other people’s mistakes, disrupting teams by getting its hands on the ball to either take opponents out of rhythm or swipe the ball altogether. The Cardinals rank second in the nation in steals and forced Colorado State --- a team that doesn’t even cough it up much -- into 19 turnovers. Taking care of the basketball has not been Oregon’s strength -- the Ducks average 15 giveaways a game. If that number doesn’t come down, it could be a long night for Nike U.
STAT TO WATCH
At the risk of beating a dead horse, you’ve got to watch the turnovers for Oregon. Too many is too much trouble for the Ducks. On the flip side, here’s one to watch for the Cardinals -- fouls. Louisville has played very aggressively but very intelligently so far in this tournament. That has to continue.