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AAC showdown pits Cardinals against Mustangs

<p>With the regular-season title in the American Athletic Conference still up for grabs, two teams battling for the top spot get together in Texas on Wednesday night, as the 11th-ranked Louisville Cardinals tangle with the 18th-ranked SMU Mustangs.</p>

Dallas, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - With the regular-season title in the American Athletic Conference still up for grabs, two teams battling for the top spot get together in Texas on Wednesday night, as the 11th-ranked Louisville Cardinals tangle with the 18th-ranked SMU Mustangs.

Louisville comes in with a league ledger of 13-3, which has it tied with Cincinnati for first place, while SMU is just a game back at 12-4. Both teams have one more game after this one, with the Cardinals hosting Connecticut on Saturday, and the Mustangs playing at Memphis the same day.

Louisville recently lost at Memphis (72-66), snapping what had been a seven- game win streak for the club. The Cardinals, who are 8-2 in true road games this season, had won their previous seven road tilts prior to slip-up on the Tigers' home court.

SMU has been one of the real surprises in college basketball this season, as Larry Brown has led his squad to an impressive 23-6 overall record. The Ponies have won three in a row, the most recent of which being a 70-55 shellacking of visiting UCF last Saturday, and they've been victorious in seven of their last eight bouts overall.

Louisville owns a 7-2 advantage in the all-time series with SMU, reaching that point by notching a 71-63 win at home in the first meeting between the two earlier this season. It was also their first encounter since Dec. 28, 1987.

Behind the efforts of three double-digit scorers, and six players in all that net at least 7.7 ppg, the Cardinals lead the AAC in scoring (81.7 ppg). Add to that a scoring defense that ranks third (62.0 ppg), and the team is far-and- away the top team in the league with regard to scoring margin (+19.8). Russ Smith leads the way with 17.8 ppg, ranking him third in the conference, and he is also one of the more active playmakers, ranking fifth with 130 assists. Montrezl Harrell (13.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg) has been a solid contributor at both ends of the court, and he is tied for second in the AAC in rebounding, while Luke Hancock (11.6 ppg), Chris Jones (9.8 ppg) and Wayne Blackshear (8.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg) lend support where needed.

Harrell logged a monster double-double consisting of 25 points and 12 rebounds, but it wasn't enough as Louisville dropped a six-point decision at Memphis last weekend. Smith tacked on 19 points and handed out five assists before fouling out, and Hancock chipped in with 11 points for the Cardinals, who shot just 39.7 percent from the field, missing the mark on all but four of their 23 3-point attempts (.174). They also struggled at the charity stripe (12-of-20) while committing 14 turnovers. By comparison, the Tigers drained nearly half of their total shots, including 6-of-9 from 3-point land, while going 18-of-26 at the foul line. They too were rather careless with the basketball, giving it away 16 times. Memphis got 23 points from its reserves, while Louisville's tallied only six.

While not the explosive offensive team its counterpart is, SMU prides itself on being efficient on offense, and downright stingy on defense. The Mustangs are netting 72.1 ppg, shooting a league-best 49.2 percent from the field, which includes a 36.9 percent showing from beyond the arc (second-best in the AAC). When they have their backs to the basket, the Mustangs permit just 61.2 ppg to rank second in the conference, and foes are shooting just 36.9 percent from the floor against them, also ranking the squad No. 1 in the league. The Ponies sit atop the AAC in rebounding margin as well (+5.4). Nic Moore (14.1 ppg, 4.7 apg) is SMU's leading scorer and assist man, the latter ranking him third in the conference. Markus Kennedy (11.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg) is the club's only other double-digit scorer, and he spearheads its rebounding effort.

Kennedy scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds as high man in both categories for the Mustangs, who manhandled the visiting UCF Knights last weekend, winning by 15. Nick Russell added 15 points, Moore had 13 to go with six helpers, and Ryan Manuel came off the bench to pitch in 10 points, all of which SMU used as it shot 48.9 percent from the field, draining 4-of-8 3-point attempts along the way, while also going 20-of-30 at the free-throw line. UCF managed just a 37.5 percent shooting effort, with 15 of its 19 long-range launches missing the mark. The Knights also had a tough time at the charity stripe (9-of-20).

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