While the Friars have dropped their last six games, including an 86-62 loss at Marquette last weekend, the Cardinals have risen to No. 11 in the polls and have won their last three games, including a thrilling 62-59 overtime victory over then-No. 4 Pittsburgh on Sunday.
So how did Providence knock off Rick Pitino's Cardinals in the first matchup?
Well, Louisville didn't do a good job defending the perimeter as Marshon Brooks scored 27 points, mostly after halftime, and Gerald Coleman added 19. The Cardinals also turned the ball over 18 times, while only forcing 12 Providence miscues. And Louisville also didn't shoot the ball well, making only 4 of 23 three's. That was the recipe for the Friars earlier upset."We were able to contain Marshon Brooks for a half, then in the second half he hurt us along with their freshman Coleman," Pitino said. "We turned the ball over way too much in that game."
Louisville begins March Madness coping with the loss of power forward Rakeem Buckles, who tore his ACL against Pittsburgh and will miss the remainder of the season. Buckles, who missed 12 games with a broken finger, will have surgery later this month.
"We were dealt a critical blow with Rakeem Buckles' injury in terms of our team improving as a whole and practicing," Pitino said. "We're extremely disappointed for Rakeem because he was so anxious to come back. That being said the Rakeem Buckles that came back wasn't the Rakeem Buckles that got hurt. He put on about 11 pounds and it was going to take him some time to get back into shape and into form."
Louisville won 4 of 5 games after Buckles returned to the lineup, including wins over three Top 25 opponents – Syracuse, UConn and Pittsburgh. Still, Buckles wasn't much of a factor in Louisville's win over Pittsburgh, playing just three minutes before leaving the game with injury. Buckles scored 9 points against the Huskies and had 7 rebounds against Syracuse.
"It's not a devastating blow to our basketball team because we were conditioned to play without him," Pitino said. "We'll be able to survive. We'll do what we've done all year, somebody else will step up."
Wednesday's game against Providence also represents the final home game for two Louisville seniors – guard Preston Knowles and center George Goode. The Cardinals have won nine straight games on Senior Night, including a win over Syracuse last season. Louisville fans are encouraged to ‘Red Out' the arena.
Knowles, who leads Louisville in scoring, ranks second in the Big East in three-pointers made per game, and third in steals. Pitino compared his maturity and development to that of former Louisville standout Ellis Myles.
"It's been a joy to coach him, he gives you everything he has all the time," Pitino said. "He's been one of the best captains I've had because he's selfless and cares about the team winning. It's always been that way with Preston. Preston is easy to follow because of what he gives to the team defensively."
George Goode will start in place of Terrence Jennings against Providence. While he hasn't played in Louisville's last four games, the 6-9 senior, who was academically ineligible his freshman season, should see more minutes down the stretch with Buckles sidelined.
"George probably chose the wrong style of play," Pitino said. "For a good year and a half he couldn't practice with team then he got hurt. Injuries and the fact he came in academically ineligible and couldn't practice with the team, he was always behind the eight ball. But he never complained and he's a big part of our basketball team."
Louisville hopes to close out its first season at the KFC Yum! Center with a win. The Cardinals are unbeaten in Big East play at home and 18-2 overall this season. Louisville has never lost to Providence at home.
"It has been a big treat," Pitino said. "The building has surpassed my expectations. I didn't think anything could be as good as Freedom Hall as a home court advantage but it has blown Freedom Hall off the map. It's been a lot of fun for our fans, our players and our coaches. And it's been a great recruiting edge."
With two games remaining, Louisville is tied with St. John's for third place in the Big East standings behind Pitt (13-3) and Notre Dame (13-4). Louisville is projected as a No. 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN's Joe Lunardi, and Pitino won't be surprised if the Cardinals make a run in the tournament.
"Nothing would surprise me," Pitino said. "We have the attitude to make a run, but we have our shortcomings like everybody else. This team no longer surprises me. We very disappointed about Rakeem's injury because of Rakeem, but it hasn't impacted our team because he wasn't Rakeem who came back. We basically played the whole Big East schedule without him."
Freshman guard Russ Smith will miss the game after sustaining a concussion this week, and will probably be out for Saturday's contest at West Virginia.