The Bearcats, who are 4-6 since opening the season 15-0, find themselves on the NCAA bubble heading into tonight's game against the Cardinals. After losing at home Sunday to St. John's 59-57, Mick Cronin's Bearcats are desperate for a few quality late season wins.
The Cardinals and Bearcats haven't played since last season's Big East Tournament. Cincinnati beat Louisville that night, out-rebounding the Cardinals by 21. In four of UofL's six losses this season, the Cardinals were out-boarded by double-digits. Cincinnati has out-rebounded opponents by nearly five per game this season.
"That's an area we're improving and working very hard to make sure teams do not dominate us," Pitino said. "We did a very good job against Syracuse in that area."Cincinnati is a tough, physical team. The Bearcats lead the Big East and rank fourth nationally in scoring defense, allowing only 58 points per game.
"I think they play great defense, they're very physical," said Pitino.
Unlike Cincinnati, Louisville is considered a ‘lock' to make the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals are coming off a 73-69 win over Syracuse, a game where Louisville built a 20-point second half lead while making 13 three-pointers and 20 assists on 26 field goals.
"It's a big part of our arsenal," Pitino said of his team's three-point shooting excellence. "We're No. 1 in [the Big East] assists. We're No. 1 in steals. We're No. 1 in three's. Steals lead to layups and three's. Assists are a big part of our offensive game. And the three-point shot, as long as it's taken the right way, we want to take it. Because we're a good passing team, we're a good shooting team. Preston [Knowles] and Kyle [Kuric] are two guys who can hit it with great consistency."
Knowles snapped his shooting slump by making 7 of 12 three-pointers against Syracuse. Kuric added five three-pointers against the Orange zone.
"We're all having a great deal of fun," Pitino said. "This team is as close of a team as I've had, definitely top three. I think Preston Knowles does a great job leading this basketball team. They all have great respect for him. They have tremendous respect for each other. They're a great group and a very easy group to root for."
With six Big East games remaining, Louisville is fighting for a top four league finish, which would give Pitino's team a Big East Tournament double-bye.p> "Now that we're healthy I don't have any worries about this basketball team," said Pitino. "We could lose the next six and it wouldn't shock me, and we could win the next six and it wouldn't shock me. I sleep very well at night because I know this team is going to give me everything they have."
Kuric's emergence has propelled Louisville into one of the Big East's top teams, and helped position them to finish in the upper fourth of the league standings. The 6-4 junior has averaged 23.3 points in Louisville's last three games and continues to expand his game. Kuric leads the Big East in three-point shooting percentage.
"What we've emphasized with Kyle is not to be a Kyle's Corner type of guy, where you just go to your corner and make your jump shots," Pitino said. "He is now putting it on the floor a little bit, moving without the basketball, getting out on the break and hitting his midrange jump shot more. He's really added to his game.
"I always equate Kyle to Larry O'Bannon because they've taken the same steps in their career every year leading up to their senior year. Larry was inconsistent his junior year but had some great games and then he was terrific his senior year. Kyle's on the same path."
Pitino has also received better production from Terrence Jennings, who has averaged 14.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in Louisville's last five games.
"He's still not where I want him to be," Pitino said. "I want him to want and enjoy more contact. But he is getting better and he is improving."
Pitino also said that freshman center Gorgui Dieng is "fine." Dieng missed four games with a concussion, and didn't play in Saturday's win over the Orange, though he was cleared to play.