The Cardinals (25-9) have won six of their last eight games coming into the NCAA Tournament and are coming off a 69-66 loss to UConn in the Big East championship game.
Though Rick Pitino called this a ‘bridge' year before the season, Louisville exceeded expectations to finish ranked 11th nationally and earn the fourth seed in the NCAA Southwest Region.
"We've gotten our rest and we're over the [Big East]," Pitino said Wednesday. "We're ready to go."
The Cardinals are intent on staying longer in the Big Dance this season after losing to California last year in the first round. That's why point guard Peyton Siva talked about getting off to a quick start against Morehead State, which won the OVC tournament title. Louisville fell behind in all three Big East tournament games – 9 down to Marquette, 16 down to Notre Dame and 14 down against UConn.
"We need to get out to a quicker start rather than trying to catch-up with everybody and trying to make comebacks," Siva said. "But I feel like our team is focused in and paying attention to scouting reports."
Siva, who earned All-Big East Tournament honors, is eager to atone for Louisville's championship game loss to the Huskies."It was hard losing that game, but we've survived it and we have a second chance," Siva said. "But the [Big East] is behind us and over and done with. We basically start our season here, so we have to move forward and learn from our mistakes."
With the Big East behind them, Louisville now will face Morehead State in the first round for the second time in three seasons. The Cardinals beat the Eagles 74-54 in Dayton on their way to the Elite Eight in 2009.
"We're focused on playing Morehead State," Louisville forward Kyle Kuric said. "We're all hungry to get farther than we did last year."
"We can't overlook them," Siva added. "They rebound the ball, they get after you and they're aggressive on defense. We've got to continue to play hard and take it one game at a time. That's what we've been doing the whole year."
Rebounding has been Louisville's Achilles heel this season, and the Eagles have the NCAA's all-time leading rebounder. Kenneth Faried, a 6-8 senior forward, led the OVC in scoring at 17.6 points per game and led the NCAA in rebounding, averaging 14.5 per game.
Preston Knowles understands his team faces a major challenge trying to keep Faried off the backboard. That's one reason why the Louisville senior guard has turned up the intensity this week in practice leading up to Thursday's opening game.
"Today he was hitting people for rebounds so I cut practice short because I was afraid we were going to have another injury because he's very, very intense right now," Pitino said. "He's picking up his level and it's quite noticeable."
Louisville's players took notice of Knowles' high-energy approach during practice also.
"He is being a lot more vocal and making sure guys are in the right spots," Kuric said. "He's being a lot more aggressive to make sure we win and keep moving forward."
"He's being aggressive," Siva added. "He's never going to give up and we follow his lead on that."
Pitino compared Morehead State to a hybrid of Big East programs Villanova and Marquette. The big key for the Cardinals will be to minimize Faried's impact on the board.
"You don't see a Dennis Rodman come along anymore – and he's one with a jumpshot," Pitino said. "That's one of the highest compliments because I'm a big Rodman fan from my NBA days.
"I don't think we have anybody like him in college. He rebounds with great quickness and relentless pursuit. He is a special guy and the reason I think he'll be a high draft choice is the NBA is in dire need of a guy like this who goes after every basketball."
Faried averaged more rebounds per game this season than Louisville's three tallest players - Terrence Jennings, Gorgui Dieng and Stephen Van Treese - combined. How do the Cardinals plan to attack Faried?
"We're not just going to leave our five man to block him out, it's going to be a team effort," Kuric said.
Louisville also will attempt to turn up the defense against Morehead State, which isn't deep and has had turnover problems this season. Solid defense fueled Louisville's late season surge as the Cardinals held their past eight opponents to 36 percent shooting from the field and held them to an average of 61 points per game. Louisville is averaging 8.6 steals per game and foes have made only 25 percent on three-point attempts.
"We're really not good individual defenders," Pitino said. "What this team has is an ability to focus in on the other team's strengths and weaknesses and study it as great students. Our guys on a ball containment or blockout situation are not very good.
"I wouldn't even put them in the Top 10 teams I've coached. But in terms of focusing in on what they have to do to stop an opponent they study like coaches study. I think that's what has made us strong [defensively] this year. It's from Preston Knowles who really sets the tone by paying attention to the little things. That's what this team does and it's why we're a good defensive team."
After falling behind in their three Big East Tournament games, Siva expects Louisville to come out of the gates firing against Morehead State.
"We know they're going to come out strong and we've got to match their intensity," Siva said.