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NCAA Basketball Louisville CardinalsMarch Madness

Improved Defense Has Louisville Cardinals Back to Championship Form

Montrezl Harrell

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

The Louisville Cardinals were underwhelming in their first game of the NCAA tournament against Manhatten, but defeating the St. Louis Billikens by 15 points in a defense-driven battle is proof the Cardinals are back to championship form.

Russ Smith – the team’s main playmaker — struggled from the field and scored just 11 points; his seven assists, however, allowed four of the five Louisville starters to end the game with double-digit point totals, including three-point specialist Luke Hancock, who led the way with a game-high 21.

The Louisville defense was on full display against the Billikens as they forced 18 turnovers and held St. Louis to under 40 percent shooting from the field and 0-of-15 from three. Defense is the trait that carries teams late into the tournament, which is why the increased intensity Louisville showed is the main reason they are on the road to repeating.

The outside play of Smith and Hancock will rival that of any backcourt the Cardinals will face this tournament, but the underrated low-post play of Montrezl Harrell is what makes the Cardinals a complete squad.

Harrell rarely puts up gaudy numbers, but he’s efficient when touching the ball and is an underrated presence in the post. Last year it was Gorgui Dieng who roamed the low post for the Cardinals, and this year it’s Harrell, who boasts some of the same defensive instincts as Dieng, but a more complete offensive game.

Harrell does struggle from the free-throw line, but he’s shooting 60 percent from the field this season and made four of his nine shots against St. Louis on Saturday. His rebounding will always be an asset to Louisville, and as long as he can continue his current level of production, the Cardinals will never be outmatched in the post.

The Cardinals are one of the more well-rounded teams left in the tournament, and if they continue to pressure opposing teams and play tough defense, their chances to repeat will remain high. Rick Pitino has years of tournament experience, and with plenty of players remaining from last year’s squad, the Cardinals have all the ingredients to win the national championship yet again.

Nick Baker is a contributing writer for Rant Sports and you can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and add him to your network on Google.

PrimeSport is your source for Midwest Regional tickets for 2014 so make sure to buy some now to see Louisville continue its march to Dallas!