Regaining Momentum

Having dropped three of their last four games, Louisville looks to regain momentum.

Not so long ago, the University of Louisville was one of the hottest teams in college basketball.

After dropping the opening game of the season to Iowa in overtime, Rick Pitino's troops reeled off a string of 16 straight wins and climbed into the top five in both national polls.

During the winning streak, Louisville knocked off two number one ranked foes, Florida at home and Kentucky on the road. They beat a good Seton Hall club, drilled Cincinnati on ESPN, and came from behind against a solid Tennessee squad.

That's about the time the wheels of momentum fell off. Injuries to point guard Taquan Dean, and forward Francisco Garcia have proven costly. Throw in an ankle injury during the same time period to reserve center Nouha Diakite, and the Cardinals travelled to Memphis without three key performers...and still nearly came away with a win.

After coasting through December and January without a loss, Dean simply couldn't go against Marquette and point guard Travis Diener two weeks ago. Despite keeping the game close and making numerous runs at the Golden Eagles in the second half, 6'9 Steve Novak's outside shooting was too much for Louisville to overcome, even at Freedom Hall.

A few nights later in Memphis, Louisville, playing without three regulars, held the lead for more than 30 minutes before falling down the stretch to C-USA's current top team.

Then last weekend against UAB, a team that at the time sat atop the league standings, U of L seemed to regain some of the momentum it had lost with the return of both Garcia and Dean to the lineup. Still not shooting the ball well, the Cards once again were playing the excellent defense that had them highly ranked before the injuries.

However, shortly after halftime, Garcia injured his other ankle and left the game for treatment. With five days before its next game against Charlotte, Louisville hoped to use the time to regain some cohesion in practice. Because of injury, both Garcia and Dean had missed a number of practices in recent weeks.

At Charlotte, at least for the better part of the game, Louisville began to resemble the team that it was before the injuries occured. Ahead 12 with under seven minutes remaining, the Cards looked like they had righted their ship and would coast in for victory.

Not so fast. An 11-0 run by the Niners cut Louisville's lead to one and re-energized the fans in Halton Arena. Down the stretch the Cards looked tired and confused, as 7'0 Martin Iti slammed the Cards down the stretch. Defensive lapses and offensive miscues were the down fall this time around.

So what's been the main culprit for Louisville's recent struggles? Clearly it's been the rash of injuries and the by-products like poor conditioning and cohesion that result.

"We're banged up," Pitino said before the Charlotte game." "We've been unhealthy for awhile and we've missed more practices this year..than any time since I've been a coach. The bad [part of that] is you lose your cohesiveness, particularly at the offensive end.

Now at 17-4, Louisville has the difficult task of regaining momentum during the toughest stretch of their schedule. And with only two of its remaining six games at home, the challenge to regain its early season form becomes that much more daunting, especially with trips to Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Marquette still looming.

So can the Cards finish strong and return to form before tournament play begins next month?

Based on the obstacles this team has overcome already this season, there's no reason to believe, once fully healthy, this team won't respond positively to the challenge again. While its seeding has been affected by the string of losses, there is plenty of time to reclaim one of the top 8 seeds in the NCAA tournament, providing the Cardinals get hot and start winning some games.

And there have been some silver linings emerge from the injuries.

6'4 junior swingman Larry O'Bannon responded well with Garcia and Dean limited and is playing the best ball of his career. He's been much more assertive on offense and his confidence is brimming as a result. Freshman point guard Brandon Jenkins also appears to have learned some valuable lessons and gain much needed experience during the past two weeks. After struggling against Memphis' Antonio Burks, Jenkins responded well to UAB's pressure, playing 30 turnover-free minutes against the Blazers pressure defense. And forward Nate Daniels stepped up during the second half against Charlotte, hitting 3-5 three pointers in just 14 minutes of action.

With one of the deepest squads, when healthy, in the country, Louisville remains one of the most dangerous outfits come tournament time. And if they can get close to 100 percent in the injury department, there's no reason this team can't make a deep tournament run next month.

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