LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville's No. 1 concern heading into its showdown with Syracuse is attacking the Orangemen's signature 2-3 zone defense.
How well the top-ranked Cardinals can penetrate and create easy scoring opportunities will determine who takes control of the Big East.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino says No. 6 Syracuse presents a different challenge because of its effectiveness in limiting opponents' shooting and passing options.
Then again, Louisville (16-1, 4-0 Big East) also presents defensive problems for Syracuse (16-1, 4-0). With their man-to-man defensive pressure, the Cardinals rank in the top three nationally in several categories, including turnover margin and steals.
But ending a two-game losing streak to Syracuse and retaining the school's second-ever No. 1 ranking depends on Louisville's ability to penetrate the Orangemen's zone.
"Teams just never shoot a real good percentage against Syracuse," Pitino said Friday. "They don't give you a whole lot, they create a lot of steals, they get out on the break and not too many teams are as good at stealing the ball in the zone as they are."
The coach added that his team has attacked zones well this year, noting the Cardinals' 49 percent shooting against Missouri in November.
"But again, nobody shoots a real high percentage against Syracuse; that's not how you're going to beat Syracuse," he said.
Opponents are shooting 35 percent against Syracuse and just 32 percent from 3-point range. A big reason for those stats are Orangemen guards Brandon Triche (6-foot-4), Michael Carter-Williams (6-6) and Trevor Cooney (6-4), who are quick and long.
If Louisville guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith are lose with their passing or ball handling, it will lead to turnovers and the Orangemen will be off and running the other way. Smith (18.9 points per game) and Siva (11.8) will also likely have to have good games shooting from the perimeter to help break down Syracuse's defense.
One of the reasons the Cardinals have fared better against zones recently has been the play of 6-11 center Gorgui Dieng. He could play a vital role against the Orangemen, who will be without forward James Southerland. He has had some academic issues and was declared ineligible by the NCAA last Saturday.
Even without Southerland the Syracuse presents the Cardinals' biggest test since losing to then-No. 5 Duke in the Battle 4 Atlantis final on Nov. 24.
"One thing I know is we can't make a lot of mistakes and think we're going to win the game," said Dieng, who has posted double-doubles in three of his past four games. "We just need to be really focused and play every position."
Louisville has won 11 straight and enters the game ranked second in turnover margin (plus-7.5 per game) and third in steals (11.4). The Cardinals figure to use their trademark pressure often against the Orangemen, winners of six straight.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is just as impressed with Louisville's offense, which was suspect in the teams' two meetings last year. He also said the experience of reaching last year's Final Four — an eight-game run that followed a 58-49 loss to the Orange in western New York — has given the Cardinals more confidence.
"They do everything well," the longtime Syracuse coach said. "They can press you and do it well, their halfcourt defense is very good and their matchup zone is too. They can play man-to-man and are pretty effective at that.
"Offensively, they have inside scoring and outside scoring. They really don't have a weakness when you look at this Louisville team. You take a team that went to the Final Four last year and improved over the course of the year, and now those guys are just that much older and better."
Louisville players have used that seasoning to earn the school's first No. 1 ranking since March 15, 2009, but Pitino said their attitudes haven't changed. Picked to repeat as conference champions and considered a favorite to return to the Final Four, Monday's ascent to the top spot is something the Cardinals knew could happen if they kept on winning.
And as big as Saturday's game looks from a records and rankings standpoint, the Cardinals view it as the first of many they expect to face with their lofty status.
"If you have something that everyone likes and wants to have, you have to take care of it," Dieng said of the ranking. "We're going to try our best to take care of it and try to be No. 1 at the end."