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Pittsburgh-Louisville Preview

You can look at Thursday night’s game between Pittsburgh and Louisville as a Top 25 matchup, but Panthers coach Jamie Dixon has another title for it: The Grad-Transfer Championship.

The 20th-ranked Panthers and their slew of new contributors seek an 11th straight win when they visit the No. 21 Cardinals, who have also taken advantage of the graduate-transfer loophole.

Both teams feature key members which completed undergraduate degrees elsewhere and transferred with their remaining eligibility. While normal transfers must sit out a full year, graduate transfers are eligible to play immediately.

Pittsburgh (14-1, 3-0 ACC) has used the rule to bolster the experience of an otherwise young group. Guard Sterling Smith has averaged 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds while starting each game, and forwards Rafael Maia and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa have switched off starting and combined for 5.3 points and 7.0 boards per game.

They will face guards Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, a pair of graduate transfers leading Louisville (13-3, 2-1) in scoring at 16.6 and 13.4 points per game.

“That’s the story,” Dixon said. “There’s have done well, ours have done well. You need guys for different reasons, different spots, different roles. You can kind of find each role covered by our two teams.”

With some new faces, it’s some surprising offensive numbers that have pushed Pittsburgh into the Top 25. The Panthers, typically a defensive-oriented team, have averaged 85.3 points – the highest mark in program history and well above last season’s 67.0. They have amassed 90 points six times and averaged 89.0 while shooting 51.4 percent in their last three.

Pittsburgh made 10 3-pointers for the fourth time in Saturday’s 86-82 win at Notre Dame, the Panthers’ first true road game and third win to open conference play – just the second time they have done that in the last five seasons after doing it in eight of the previous 10.

The last time Pittsburgh won 11 straight was its 16-game run to open the 2008-09 season.

A step back offensively resulted in the first ACC loss for Louisville. The Cardinals had averaged 83.2 points through their first 15 games – well above last season’s 69.0 mark – but fell 66-62 at Clemson on Sunday.

Louisville shot a season-low 35.3 percent and missed its first 15 3-pointers before finishing 3 of 23 from long range. The defense couldn’t make up the difference despite holding the Tigers to 32.6 percent shooting.

“I knew this type of game was going to happen sooner or later,” coach Rick Pitino said. “I’ve been trying to warn our guys about it. You’ve got to have your defense every night and we haven’t. We got burned because of it.”

After combining for 42 points in a 75-73 loss at then-No. 12 Kentucky on Dec. 26, Lee and Lewis have struggled the last three games, averaging a combined 18.0 points while shooting 27.6 percent.

The Cardinals, who have won the last six meetings in this series and have taken the past five in Louisville, will try to improve to 12-0 at the KFC Yum! Center. They have shot 52.0 percent at home while holding opponents to 34.1 percent.

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