Breather for the Cardinals, who hosts No. 4-ranked Pittsburgh this weekend, right? Wrong.
Records can be deceiving, especially in the nation's top basketball conference. Rick Pitino believes that to be the case with Rutgers, and the reason why he expects another tough, Big East test for the Cardinals.While Rutgers enters tonight's game 13th in the Big East standings, first-year coach Mike Rice has a dangerous team. Don't believe it. Ask Villanova, a nationally ranked foe Rutgers beat less than two weeks ago. Ask Pittsburgh, Syracuse and St. John's, too. Those Big East heavyweights barely escaped upsets at the hands of Rutgers this month.
Though Rutgers has struggled to win games in the league, the Scarlet Knights are 10-4 at home this season and have beaten two teams (Villanova and Providence) that defeated Louisville. Led by seniors Jonathan Mitchell and Mike Coburn, Rutgers limits opponents to 40.6 field goal shooting from the field, fifth-best in the Big East.
"I see this game as competitive as any team we've faced this year," Pitino said. "It will be a really big challenge for us. They have terrific players in the senior class and outstanding young talent. They are a dangerous opponent. They're a difficult opponent to prepare for because they play multiple defenses and run as many [offensive] sets as you'll find."
Louisville should feel good about themselves after a 71-58 win over UConn Friday night. The Cardinals are in a four-way tie for third place in the Big East, and need to keep winning to secure a double-bye in next month's Big East Tournament.
"We're trying to win every single game and be a No. 1 seed," Pitino said. "We know we're not going to be a No. 1 seed, but that's the mindset you have going in is to win every single game."
Though Louisville only made five three-pointers against UConn, the Cardinals turned in an outstanding defensive effort against the Huskies. Louisville kept UConn's big three – Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier – in check and out-rebounded the Huskies on the boards.
Gorgui Dieng, Louisville's promising 6-foot-10 freshman, was a big reason for the Cardinals success against the Huskies. With Terrence Jennings limited because of foul problems, Dieng responded with 13 points and 12 rebounds – by far his best performance of the season.
"I think he has as much potential as anybody I've coached up front," Pitino said.
Dieng, who missed five games with a concussion, made 5 of 9 shots against the Huskies and recorded a blocked shot and a steal. He ranks third in the Big East in blocks with 48.
"I feel much better," Dieng said. "I don't feel any pain or numbness. I think I'm in good shape. I've never had a concussion. I sprained my neck. It was pretty bad."
A native of Senegal, Pitino said the only question about Dieng's potential is whether or not he's hungry enough to put in the needed work to take his game to the next level.
"That's the only question somebody would have about him is how hungry is he?" Pitino said. "Is he willing to pay the price? We don't know that yet. We'll know that this spring and summer how much time and effort he puts into his body and game. We didn't see it last summer because he was vacationing in Senegal. He may go home for a week or two, but he's not going anywhere [this summer]."
Dieng sounds intent on realizing his potential.
"I'm trying to get better every day," said Dieng. "I have a lot of good coaches around me. They help a lot to make me better."
After Cincinnati took away Louisville's three-point attack in a 63-54 win over the Cards last week, Pitino wanted his team to establish an inside presence from the start against UConn.
That's exactly what Louisville did. Jennings scored eight early points before foul problems limited his minutes. When Jennings went to the bench, Dieng picked up the slack. Rakeem Buckles, who missed 12 games with a broken finger, added nine points and three rebounds coming off the bench.
"We feel now with Gorgui and Rakeem back and improvement with T.J. we have more of an inside attack," Pitino said.
Though Jennings has stepped up his play the last few weeks, Pitino wants to the 6-10 junior to continue making improvement on the court.
"T.J. is scoring better but he's still not playing the way I want him to play," said Pitino. "He's still not doing the things I want defensively – the physical things I want. He's still not rebounding the way I want. Is he playing better? Yes he is. But he's still not up to the level I would want him to play at."