If Louisville is truly rounding into postseason form, Memphis will be the key test Saturday.
The Cardinals flopped at home against the Tigers in the first meeting back on Jan. 9, losing 73-67. Memphis’ entire starting five scored in double figures that day, the last time an opponent scored more than 70 points against Louisville.
“Our worst game of the season was Memphis,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “You have to give them credit because they made us look bad. That was our poorest performance of the season at the defensive end. We did a lot of things that were uncharacteristic of us, but we are a much different team now then when we played them.”
Going into Thursday, Memphis had hopes of scoring a rare season sweep of Louisville, but the Tigers may have a new host of problems with a 77-68 loss to Houston. The loss was only the third for a team in the top five of the American standings against a team in the bottom six — SMU owns the other two losses to USF and Temple.
What’s on the line for Louisville
The Cardinals moved into a tie with Cincinnati for the American Athletic Conference lead with a win Thursday against Temple. Louisville’s road to the top seed in the conference tournament will be tougher with Saturday’s game at Memphis, a road trip to SMU and the home finale against UConn. Meanwhile, Cincinnati face UConn and Rutgers on the road and Memphis at home.
What’s on the line for Memphis
With a 73-67 win over Louisville on Jan. 9, Memphis is seeking its first season sweep of the Cardinals since 1996-97 when both were in Conference USA. Like Louisville, the Tigers wrap up their season with a tough stretch (at Cincinnati, vs. SMU). Memphis was sloppy in a loss Thursday to Houston, allowing 21 points on 14 turnovers.
Louisville at Memphis
Saturday, 2 p.m. Eastern, CBS
Record: 24-4, 13-2 American
Record: 21-7, 10-5 American
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Louisville 71-65
Braden Gall: Louisville 74-68
Mitch Light: Louisville 64-60
You’ll tune in to watch: The Russ Smith Show
The Louisville guard scored only 10 points against Cincinnati on Saturday, but the last two were the only ones anyone will remember. Smith continues to be an All-America caliber guard who is having a season even better than what he did year ago. Now a darling of advanced analytics, Smith is shooting 52 percent from 2-point range (up from 45.8) and 37.6 from 3 (up from 32.8). He’ll be matched up against Memphis’ standout defensive duo of Geron Johnson and Michael Dixon.
Pivotal player: Austin Nichols, Memphis
The 6-8 freshman could be a key player for Memphis late in the year. The guard-oriented Tigers have had four standout games from Nichols in a row with 12 points per game in that span. Facing a small lineup against UConn and two bad AAC teams in Rutgers and Temple may have helped.
Biggest question: Who will hit free throws?
Struggling to hit free throws is usually a red flag in March. Few teams are more concerned than Louisville and Memphis, who are two of the worst in the country from the line. Memphis ranks 304th (65.8 percent), and Louisville is a few steps behind at No. 313 (65.5).