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No. 10 Louisville ready for No. 12 SU

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville isn’t approaching today’s game at No. 12 Syracuse feeling nostalgic or sentimental about its final Big East matchup against the Orange.

Revenge isn’t even the primary motivation for the No. 10 Cardinals, whose agenda is winning out and making a run at the conference tournament title. They’ve won four in a row and their hopes are riding on the improved play of guard Russ Smith, who is making smarter decisions and has cut down his turnovers.

The Cardinals (23-5, 11-4 Big East) were No. 1 on Jan. 19 when Syracuse (22-6, 10-5) dealt the Cardinals their only home loss this season. That started a three-game slide, shuffling Louisville to the middle of the pack.

Syracuse is now swooning with two straight losses and is 5-5 since beating the Cardinals.

Louisville’s leading scorer had just one assist in the loss to the Orange but is now working to find open teammates.

“I can pass. I know I can,” the 6-foot-1 Smith said. “I just have to make the right decision — whether it is shoot or look for the open guy when I’m driving.”

His mindset is a change from the slashing, shoot-first style he honed on Brooklyn playgrounds and displayed earlier this season. Teammates got into rebounding position as soon as he got the ball.

After Louisville’s loss to Syracuse he had more turnovers (49) than assists (48). In the 10 games since, Smith has 34 assists to 22 turnovers, adding nearly an extra assist while shaving more than half a turnover a game.

Scoring hasn’t been an issue for the junior. His 17 points against DePaul on Wednesday made him Louisville’s 65th 1,000-point scorer, more than half coming this season.

His 18.4-point average, if it holds, would be the highest since Reece Gaines (21.0) in 2001-02, coach Rick Pitino’s first season.

Louisville assistant Kevin Keatts said Smith has changed since the Syracuse game.

“He’s become a better basketball player and he’s honestly putting the effort in to be a better teammate as far as passing the ball and getting everyone involved,” Keatts said.

“He’s the one guy on the team that can make everyone else better because he draws so much attention.”

Keatts said Pitino’s message to Smith underscores his importance to the Cardinals’ postseason hopes.

“Coach is constantly on him about if we’re going to go a long ways — if we’re going to have to a chance to win the Big East, if we’re going to chance to win the Big East tournament — `Russ, you’ve got to be a passer. Score when you need to but you’ve got to find people,’ “ he added.

Finding the balance between scoring and setting up his teammates is still coming to the player Pitino nicknamed “Russdiculous” because of his unpredictability.

“It’s always going to be hard at first because you’re diverting away from something you’ve always done,” Smith said. “But if it comes down to, `in order for us to win,’ then I’m going to try everything in my power.”

Smith added that it’s the latest example of his adaptability. He has grown comfortable in a much different environment than his native Brooklyn after battling injuries and considering a transfer following his freshmen year.

He found his way onto the court his sophomore after his defense improved. Now comes a bigger role on offense and in the locker room.

Smith also knows the change is in his best long-term interest if he wants to continue his career beyond college. Improving his chance at a professional career and helping his team win now are motivation enough to changing his game.

“I’m assuming at the next level you get a check,” Smith deadpanned. “If I have to play a certain way to get a check, and on this level if I have to play a certain way to win and get a nice ring then yeah, I’ll have to do it.”

While today marks the final Big East game between Syracuse and Louisville, the two schools will meet again in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Syracuse and Pitt will begin play in the league next season, while the Cardinals expect to join in 2014.

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