ROSEMONT, Ill. — Rick Pitino thinks Russ Smith is the key to the season for No. 10 Louisville, and the shifty guard believes he can help the Cardinals make another long run in March.
He sure looked ready on Wednesday night.
Smith scored 17 points, Peyton Siva had 16 and Louisville pulled away for a 79-58 victory over DePaul that ran its winning streak to four ahead of a big matchup with No. 12 Syracuse on Saturday.
"When Russ Smith passes the basketball, we have a big-time chance of being a great team," Pitino said. "When he doesn't and he gambles on defense, we're just a mediocre team. But if we can get him to totally buy in offensively and defensively, we have the makings of a great team, and he did that in the second half."
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Smith seemed emboldened by Pitino's challenge.
"If Coach has faith in me, then I have to have faith in myself to get the job done," said Smith, a junior who also had five assists and four rebounds while passing 1,000 career points.
Chane Behanan added 10 points and nine rebounds for the Cardinals (23-5, 11-4 Big East), who held the Blue Demons to 36 percent shooting and forced 19 turnovers.
Louisville is unbeaten since it lost 104-101 in five overtimes at Notre Dame on Feb. 9 in the longest regular-season game in Big East history. With the victory over sliding DePaul, the Cardinals moved into a tie with Marquette for second place in the conference behind Georgetown.
Pitino's team meets the Orange in the Carrier Dome, and Notre Dame faces Marquette in a big slate of games for the Big East on Saturday.
Brandon Young scored 22 points and Cleveland Melvin had 20 for the Blue Demons (11-17, 2-13), who have dropped 12 of their last 13.
Montrezl Harrell scored 11 points for the Cardinals on Wednesday, and Gorgui Dieng finished with 10.
Louisville and DePaul combined for 23 turnovers, 19 personal fouls and a slew of missed layups during a frenetic first half that included several referee huddles and upset coaches angling for calls during the physical play.
"The game shouldn't be that physical," Blue Demons Coach Oliver Purnell said. "It shouldn't be that more physical than an NBA game, particularly as we get close to tournament time. We want games to be entertaining and teams to score and that kind of thing. It shouldn't be that physical."
Louisville was leading 21-16 when the 6-foot-6 Behanan stole a pass near midcourt, dribbled in and threw down a massive dunk over DePaul guard Worrel Clahar. Behanan was originally whistled for an offensive foul but it was changed to a block, leading to a spirited argument from Purnell.
No. 10 Louisville at No. 12 Syracuse
When: Saturday, Noon (CBS-27)