Louisville, KY (SportsNetwork.com) - The sixth-ranked Louisville Cardinals close out a five-game homestand on Tuesday night, as they play host to the Missouri State Bears in a non-conference tilt at the KFC Yum! Center.
The defending national champions are 9-1 on the season, with the lone loss coming to North Carolina (93-84) in the Hall of Fame Tipoff back on Nov. 24. Rick Pitino's squad has rolled off four straight wins since then, including a 79-63 rout of Western Kentucky last time out.
Paul Lusk's Bears aren't to be taken lightly. Missouri State also has just one loss on the campaign, an 83-63 loss to Virginia on Nov. 30. MSU has won back- to-back games since, moving to 8-1 on the year with victories over Cameron (81-57) and most recently, Oral Roberts (70-67).
This is just the second all-time meeting between these two programs. Louisville won the only previous encounter, a 74-56 victory in the 2006 NIT.
Marcus Marshall's return to the lineup couldn't have come at a better time. Marshall, who missed the previous four games with a knee injury, erupted for a game-high 20 points off the bench, to lead the Bears to the narrow victory over Oral Roberts. Jarmar Gulley netted 15 points and Christian Kirk chipped in with 12, as Missouri State won the game down the stretch by knocking down nine straight free throws.
The Bears don't possess prolific scorers, but get contributions from a variety of sources in averaging a solid 77.1 ppg. Gulley currently leads the team in scoring at 13.7 ppg and is also the top rebounder with just under six caroms per contest (5.7). Marshall adds 13.4 ppg to the mix and his health going forward will be a big plus for the Bears, who should contend in the Missouri Valley Conference. No other players are in double figures at this time, with Kirk (8.7 ppg) and Austin Ruder (8.0 ppg) representing the best of the rest.
The Cardinals have certainly looked like they can successfully defend their national title this season. Louisville is getting it done at both ends of the court, boasting of a +25.3 scoring margin, averaging 85.9 ppg and allowing just 60.6. Senior guard Russ Smith is the straw that stirs the drink, with the ability to score in bunches (17.2 ppg) and distribute effectively (4.9 apg) as well. Chris Jones is next in the scoring column (14.9 ppg) although he is currently nursing a wrist injury. Montrezl Harrell has really been a force in the frontcourt for Louisville this season, delivering on 62.7 percent of his shots and averaging 12.3 points and a team-high 8.7 rebounds per game. Quality depth comes in the form of Wayne Blackshear (9.9 ppg), Luke Hancock (8.6 ppg) and Chane Behanan (8.2 ppg).
The Cardinals were without Jones last time out, but didn't need him, as they pulled away from the Hilltoppers in the second half to earn a 16-point win. Smith recorded a double-double with team-highs of 14 points and 10 assists. Mangok Mathiang finished with 13 points, Blackshear and Tim Henderson posted 12 points each and Behanan chipped in with 11. Louisville shot just .364 from the floor in the first half, but caught fire after the break, connecting at a 69.2-percent clip the rest of the way.