This is the exact question that is on all Cards fans minds. The 2009 rendition of the Cards was arguably the best of the Pitino era and probably easily the most talented (2 McDonald's All-Americans and the freak that was T-Will.) And I still believe we would have ran away with a National Championship if Louisville's 2006 class had stayed together. We're looking at you Derrick Caracter.
However, on March 29th, 2009 Michigan State not only beat that Cardinal team they took them out of their game completely. Louisville failed to score 60 points for only the fifth time that season, they lost all five of those games. Michigan State took the lead with 14:46 left in the game and never looked back, as they cruised to a 64-52 win and a Final Four berth in Detroit. Then rumors of a distracted team and coach roared loud, and the Sypher Scandal followed. Not a good ending to a season that almost seemed certain of a third national championship after the Cards crushed Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen.
Fast forward to now, the Cards are on a 6 game winning streak and are riding high after a close victory over Drew Gordon and New Mexico. Michigan State has won five straight, and they're last two losses coincide on the day after and the day before Louisville's last two losses (February 28th and March 4th.) Both of those losses came against Sweet Sixteen teams (IU andOSU.) However, Louisville's last five losses have come against teams that won at least one game in the NCAA tournament. And in fact only one of Louisville's 9 losses came against a team that didn't win a game in the NCAA tourney. That team is Providence, Louisville's only bad loss of the season the other 7 teams (Syracuse beat us twice) all won one game in the tournament, and four of them are still playing (UofL has played five of the Sweet 16 teams with a 3-3 record against.) Michigan State has played four of the remaining teams with a 6-3 record (all wins against OSU, IU and Wisconsin.) However, Michigan State also took a bad loss to Illinois in late January and a not so great loss to Northwestern in Mid-January. Enough of the factoids though, let's take a look at how the Cards will look to defeat the Spartans.
In their last two losses Michigan State got out-rebounded and averaged 13 turnovers. However, they still shot a good percentage from the field in both games. They average about 70% at the free throw line, are 24th in FG %, 26th in rebounds per game and 27th in assists per game. The Cards come closest to them in rebounds per game one spot behind at 27th. However, I'd be willing to bet Michigan State shoots much lower than their season average of 47.6%. And you can be sure of one other note Draymond Green will get at least 8-12 rebounds and assuredly 15+ points. To put it bluntly the only way to stop him is to get him in foul trouble.
So where can the Cards attack the Spartans?
The easy answer to that question lies at the guard spot. Keith Appling is the Spartans second best player behind Green, he alongside Freshman Branden Dawson and Senior Austin Thornton make-up the Sparty backcourt. The first objective will be to speed up the Spartans, through the press. This is an ideal game for Russ to start as he is more likely to create turnovers than Chris Smith. Plus Russ is coming off a game in which he was on fire. Getting off to a fast start is ideal and could really rattle the Spartans. Better yet if the Cards can limit Appling and take him out of the game a win will be much easier Thursday night.
Another question to be answered is how is this team different than the 2009 team? Well to put it simply consistency and team unity. The 2009 team had more talent and experience, but you never knew what exactly you'd get from guys like T-will, Earl Clark, Sosa and Samardo Samuels. Furthermore, none of those guys are deferring players, however, Kuric, C. Smith, Dieng and Siva are all team first guys. Similarly though both teams could go for long periods of time without scoring and they both fed off their defense. Defensively though we have one major factor this year that we lacked in 2009, and his name is Gorgui Dieng. His ability to block shots, get steals and rebound will be crucial Thursday night and if he gets into foul trouble like he did against Davidson it will be a long night.
So to recap, the Cards need to shut down the backcourt of the Spartans and accept the fact that Draymond Green will get his average rebounds and points and likely more. They need to out-rebound the Spartans just as OSU and IU did when they beat Michigan State. And Gorgui and Peyton need to stay out of foul trouble. If they can do that and have one or more of C. Smith, Russ and/or Kyle get going early this is a very winnable game. However, if they fail in those aspects and have on of their cold shooting nights we could be looking at 2009 all over again.
I'll close with a couple additional facts. Rick Pitino is 9-0 in the Sweet Sixteen and I believe that streak will reach double digits Thursday night. Also the last time UofL played a one seed as a four seed they played out West, the year was 2005, I think we all remember what happened.