The Cards take on former Conference USA rival Charlotte for the first time since 2005 at 7:00 tonight at Freedom Hall. Louisville won that game, 94-82, and the following season saw both teams move on to new conferences-Louisville to the Big East and the 49ers to the Atlantic 10. While the Cardinals have found their niche within the rugged Big East and established themselves as perennial conference title contenders, the 49ers have finished no better than 4th and an NIT appearance after a 2nd place finish in their first year in the league. They finished 11-20 last year, but came in to the 2009 season with visions of challenging for a top 3 position in the A-10 and a postseason berth of some kind. The addition of Boston College transfer Shamari Spears was a major reason for this year's increased expectations. The junior forward comes in as one of the nation's leading scorers at 21.8 points per game, and has proved to be the number one scoring option the 49ers have been lacking since the departure of Leemire Goldwire. Louisville comes into the second of a stretch of 8 consecutive home games shorthanded. Junior guard Preston Knowles and highly touted freshman Peyton Siva are both nursing injuries to their shooting hands, and each is expected to miss a second consecutive game. To make matters worse, senior guard Jerry Smith is out indefinitely with a strained achilles tendon, which he injured in practice on Thursday a day after scoring a season-high 17 points in a win over Stetson. In Rick Pitino's eyes, the game may hinge on point guard Edgar Sosa: "Edgar is going to have to really play intelligently in terms of fouls and in terms of staying in the game the right way...So much is dependent on him pushing the pace of the game as a point guard."
The coaching match-up is a good one. Pitino's record speaks for itself, but Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz is well-respected and has come up in several job openings, including the Tennessee job that eventually went to Bruce Pearl. You can bet that with the injuries on the Cards' side of the court, he has his squad thinking upset. The 49ers feature a balanced attack led by strong inside play and a stable of solid guards. Senior center Phil Jones and freshman forward Chris Braswell will be charged with combating the Cards' own interior force, Samardo Samuels. Samuels has shown marked improvement on the glass this year, upping his average to 7 a game from just under 5 last year. He will likely be joined in the front-court by George Goode, who is expected to make his first career start. Sophomore Kyle Kuric is slated to make his second career start for the Cards, who are now left with just 3 available guards for this contest, including Chris Brickley, a walk-on with just 48 career minutes under his belt. Charlotte will try to work inside-out, and Samardo Samuels will have to stay disciplined and not pick up cheap fouls trying to defend Jones or help out on Spears. Sophomore center Terrence Jennings will likely see increased playing time tonight, and his remarkable shot-blocking ability will hopefully be on display. Charlotte guards Dijuan Harris, Derrio Green, and Shamarr Bowden will likely try to push tempo on offense in an effort to get Sosa into foul trouble, and with two of the Cards' best 3-point shooters in Knowles and Smith out, will also try to force Louisville into settling for outside shots. Louisville needs to avoid falling in love with the 3-ball and work inside to Samuels. As Pitino said, Edgar Sosa will be the key to the game. If he becomes saddled with fouls, Louisville will not have a viable option at point guard with Peyton Siva sitting out. Senior guard Reginald Delk will also play a huge role for the Cards; Pitino needs him to be a third scoring option to complement Sosa and Samuels and a reliable outside threat. Look for Charlotte to crank up the defensive pressure on the perimeter and deny passing lanes to Samuels, double-teaming immediately when he does get the ball on the block. George Goode and Jared Swopshire need to step up on the inside for Louisville against Charlotte's strong inside attack and secure the defensive glass. Preventing second chance opportunities for the 49ers and giving Sosa chances to get out in transition will be key.
This game gives Louisville an opportunity to work in some of their younger players. The Cards have a month before the big showdown at Rupp Arena against Kentucky, giving them ample time to work themselves back to full strength. This should be the toughest game until that January 2nd showdown, and I expect a pretty close one tonight. Charlotte was completely dismantled by Duke in a 101-59 drubbing earlier this year, getting outrebounded 45-32 and committing 17 turnovers to just 6 assists. If Louisville can force turnovers and put Charlotte's guards in tough spots, I like our chances. Samuels and Sosa need to control both ends of the floor and stay out of foul trouble, but if they do I think the Cards will be able to ride the Freedom Hall crowd to a victory and a 6-1 record. C-A-R-D-S, C-A-R-D-S, GO CARDS GO.