With four games left in the regular-season, University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino is not only growing a beard these days but he's smiling a lot.
Pitino, who just weeks ago said he was concerned about where this team was headed, has seen the Cardinals improve drastically.
Louisville is now playing championship defense and that - along with a Russ Smith 17-foot jumper with 2.2 seconds left - helped the Cardinals beat No. 7 Cincinnati 58-57 on Saturday in a hostile environment at Fifth Third Arena.
"I told out guys this was a great opportunity for us," Pitino said. "A great opportunity to play Memphis, Cincinnati and SMU on the road because it doesn't get any tougher than those three on the road. We knew it was a great opportunity. We didn't worry about it being a white out. We looked at this as a tremendous opportunity for our basketball team."
The Cardinals passed the test.
Louisville (23-4, 12-2 AAC) has now won six in a row since a 69-66 loss to Cincinnati on Jan. 30. The Cardinals are playing better defense and have now played five games in a row with the turnover margin under 10, including only nine on Saturday against the Bearcats.
"We're all coming together," senior Russ Smith said. "We're just playing better as a team, playing better defense."
Pitino said he told his team prior to the Cincinnati game that he was giving them the same speech he gave them last season before the Final Four game against Wichita State.
"I told them the better defensive team will win," he said. "The better offensive team will not necessarily win even though we shot better than they did. I told them, you have got to win this game on defense, and we did."
Pitino said on Friday that he was excited about this team the past 10 days, noting the Cardinals had turned the corner since the first loss to Cincy. And he proved to be right on.
U of L will host Temple on Thursday night at 9 o'clock before traveling to Memphis next Saturday. The Cardinals play at SMU on March 5 and will host Connecticut on March 8.
"We are playing well defensively," Pitino said. "The thing that bugs me is if they miss a shot, they let it bother them. I tell them I will never take them out for a missed shot. Defense is what makes the difference. Play defense.
"Play your (butts) off on defense and that's what we're starting to do."