- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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PHOENIX -- A little over a month ago -- still weeks before Louisville ran off its six-game postseason winning streak, which includes a Big East tournament title and a spot in the Sweet 16 -- coach Rick Pitino gave his then-struggling point guard, Peyton Siva, a bit of visual homework.
The assignment: Watch Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash.
Watch the two-time NBA MVP work possessions. Watch him change the pace and speed of his approach. Watch him keep his dribble alive at all times, even when seemingly every option had broken down. Watch him circle under the rim, watch him play every angle, watch him reload and reassess when nothing came. Watch him attack again.
"One of the reasons why Peyton was struggling is he's so fast, he plays at one pace," Pitino said Wednesday. "I wanted him to start to change his pace, and also, if he didn't have anything, continue dribbling out in a circle and take another opportunity -- and nobody does that better than Steve Nash.
"Anytime you show them a great basketball player, they love to emulate that."
No one would confuse Siva for the Suns legend just yet, but the results of the film session are hardly in dispute. In the past month, Siva has elevated his game, boosted a lackluster offense, and led his team -- which lost four of its first six Big East games, then another four of six beginning in mid-February -- to the US Airways Center, the stage upon which Nash displays his nightly brilliance.
"Growing up he was one of my favorite players to watch," Siva said. "Coach P really had me watch more film on him and how he kept his dribble alive. It really helped me out by not forcing things and getting in trouble or making jump error passes. And it really helped me out probing the court, giving other guys open looks, and seeing the whole court a little better."
The question now, of course, is whether Siva's late-blooming improvement will be enough to key the Cardinals past the No. 1-seeded Michigan State Spartans in the first game in Phoenix (7:47 p.m. ET). If Louisville is going to keep pace with the West favorites, Siva will have to dictate the tone of the game on the offensive end, where the Cards -- who ranked No. 13 in the Big East in points per possession this season -- will be facing the nation's third-ranked efficiency defense, per KenPom.com.
Siva's play at the point of attack, where he often works off high-ball screens before cannonballing himself into the lane, will be crucial: According to Synergy Sports Technology scouting data, nearly 40 percent of Siva's offensive possessions come as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls, and the Spartans are allowing a staggeringly low .059 points per trip on such plays, one of the best marks in the country.
There are other matchups to consider, of course: How does Gorgui Dieng guard the rim against not only Draymond Green but Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, a trio that dominates the boards on both ends of the floor? For that matter, who matches up with Green, Tom Izzo's hyperversatile star? Asked about the issues Green presents at "his position," Pitino conceded that he didn't have a ready-made answer.
"Well, that's just it, 'his position' -- I'm not sure what his position is," Pitino said "If they need somebody to run a pick-and-roll, if they need a post-up, if they need a guy to take you off the bounce, he does that. He's about the most complete player in college basketball in terms of all phases of the game."
The Cardinals have one major trump card, one area in which they actually rank ahead of Michigan State on a per-possession basis: defense. Louisville's defense is the second-stingiest in the country this season, and not only because it holds opposing shooters to the third-worst effective field goal percentage in the nation. The Cards also force turnovers, and lots of them.
"They're scrappy," Michigan State guard Keith Appling said. "They're going to force a lot of turnovers. We're going to have to keep our composure and get into our offense as fast as we can."
Which, again, comes back to Siva -- not just on the offensive end, but in how he sets the tone on defense, whether he creates turnovers and fast-break opportunities for UL. As Pitino prepares to face off with a similarly brilliant tactician in Izzo (the two last met in the tournament in 2009, when MSU knocked off the top-seeded Cardinals in the Elite Eight), and against a team whose only clear weakness is its tendency to turn the ball over, it's clear that Siva's all-court play will hold the key.
"We got our guys to this point by pressing and running, and we're not going to change because the other team may be a little better on the backboard and try to take possessions away," Pitino said. "So we're going to run with them. They're the better backboard team. But we're going to make it that type of basketball game. We do not want to play slow against Michigan State."
Who to watch
Louisville's Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan: The Cardinals will be pressuring constantly, no doubt, but if Michigan State does break the press and get into its offense, UL will be at a severe disadvantage on the interior. Dieng is the lone Louisville player with the size and length to make life difficult for Payne, Nix and Green inside, but at 6-foot-7, Behanan might be the best chance Louisville has of matching a quality rebounder with the athleticism to guard Green on the perimeter. That's a lot to ask of a freshman in his first Sweet 16, but it may be Louisville's best hope of keeping pace on the glass.
Michigan State's Keith Appling and Travis Trice: Appling, Trice and Brandon Wood form the core of the Spartans' underrated backcourt, but how will this trio handle Louisville's relentless defense? Wood has kept his turnovers to a relative minimum this season (his turnover rate is a mere 14.1 percent), but together, Appling and Trice average a turnover rate of 22.1 percent. If MSU has any true vulnerabilities -- and this has been a constant under Izzo in recent seasons, even among his best teams -- this is it. That's music to Pitino's ears, and it makes Appling's and Trice's roles as the primary backcourt ball handlers especially crucial.
What to watch
Simply put? Size versus speed. Take it away, Coach Izzo ...
"Seeing [the pressure] on film and hearing it from a coach or hearing it from another player, and all of a sudden getting in one of those traps and having to get the ball out is a little different," Izzo said. "So we try to do what we can do. But we have played a million different styles. That's not going to be an excuse for this team. We're going to take care of the ball and make some shots and make sure that our defense doesn't let them get a lot of layups and make some shots -- or we're not. And I think that's what the game is going to come down to.
"They've got to handle our physical size inside and we've got to handle their pressure outside. That's what basketball is about, is the matchups, and who exploits whose, and who plays better against whose strengths will probably determine the winner."