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Syracuse visits Louisville in pivotal Big East clash

Tied with top-ranked Kentucky for the best overall record in the nation, the Syracuse Orange hit the road tonight to clash with the Louisville Cardinals in a Big East Conference showdown at the KFC Yum! Center.

Since suffering their only loss of the season to Notre Dame on the road last month, the Orange have ripped off another five wins, two of those coming in the last week. First, Syracuse survived in overtime against Georgetown on Wednesday night (64-61), and then on Saturday the squad pummeled UConn at the Carrier Dome (85-67). Overall, Syracuse is 25-1 and 12-1 in conference play, one of only two teams in the Big East with double-digit wins (Marquette, 10-3).

As for the Cardinals, they've rebounded nicely after losing three of four conference games in January. After bowing to Marquette on the road (74-63) in the middle of the month, Louisville has logged six consecutive victories and is now 8-4 in conference play, which keeps it in the hunt for a top spot in the standings with the Big East Tournament just a few short weeks away. On Saturday, the team picked up a narrow 77-74 win over West Virginia in Morgantown, evening out the all-time series with the Mountaineers on the road at 3-3 in the process. Louisville has now won at least 20 games in 10 straight seasons, and head coach Rick Pitino has done it a total of 20 times during his illustrious career.

Not only do the Cardinals hold the overall lead in the series with Syracuse at 13-4, they've also been almost unbeatable at home in the relationship, posting seven wins in eight opportunities, not to mention winning seven straight matchups overall. The two teams are slated to close out the regular season against each other in early March.

With the Huskies still sticking around in the second half, Syracuse put together a 22-6 run late in order to produce the 18-point win over UConn at the Carrier Dome on Saturday. Scoop Jardine led the hosts with 21 points, hitting all four of his three-point attempts and making 8-of-9 shots from the floor overall, not to mention handing out six assists. Dion Waiter added 18 points and Kris Joseph 15, while C.J. Fair made a huge impression off the bench with 14 points and a game-high 12 rebounds as the team shot a staggering 10-of-16 beyond the arc and 59.3 percent from the floor overall. In conference games this season, Joseph leads a balanced offensive attack with his 14.2 ppg, with Waiters (12.5 ppg) being the only other double-digit performer on the roster. Jardine (8.2 ppg) has served up 77 assists during the conference slate and because of that the team has one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the county. Taking exceptional care of the basketball, the Orange averages less than 11 turnovers per contest over the entire season, and that too is one of the top marks in the nation.

Trailing by as many as 13 points in the first half on Saturday at West Virginia, the Cardinals turned up the defensive pressure after the break and held the hosts to just eight total field goals and escaped with the three- point win after Darryl Bryant missed a three-pointer at the end of regulation. Louisville had a balanced scoring attack that saw five players reach double figures, beginning with Kyle Kuric who tallied 17 points and knocked down a pair of crucial free throws in the final moments. Russ Smith pitched in with 16 points, Chris Smith and Wayne Blackshear 13 apiece and Peyton Siva finished with 10 points and five assists. Kuric, who had a huge game against Syracuse last season, leads four regulars in double figures with his 13.2 ppg, followed by Russ Smith (12.3 ppg), Chris Smith (10.5 ppg) and Gorgui Dieng (10.1 ppg), the latter also responsible for a team-best 9.2 rpg. Siva (8.5 ppg) has had his moments on offense, but it is his job to distribute the ball (131 assists) and also play tight defense (41 steals) and because of him and Russ Smith (55 steals), the Cardinals are averaging 9.4 thefts per game which ranks among the best in the nation.