After starting quickly the past two seasons, only to fade toward the end, Rick Pitino's Cardinals have the look of a team that is just beginning to scratch the surface of its potential.
Winners of 11 of their past 12 games, the Cardinals, nearly healthy for the first time this season, have played their best basketball since falling at Houston earlier this month. Since that loss to the Cougars, Louisville has won five straight, including impressive wins over Cincinnati and Tennessee.
The formula for Louisville's success this season, particularly in recent weeks, is vintage Pitino basketball; tough defense and a relentless full court press, deadly outside shooting, and, to the surprise perhaps of Pitino himself, proficiency on the backboards.
Senior guard Larry O'Bannon, U of L's third-leading scorer, said the Cardinals aren't taking their recent success for granted and aren't about to look past any upcoming opponents, particularly nemesis Marquette, who will visit Freedom Hall Wednesday night for a key Conference USA game.
"We're confident [right now] but we're focused and intense at the same time," O'Bannon said. "We know what's at stake and what our task is."
O'Bannon, who has hit 42-of-107 three's this season, is one of seven Cardinals that have made at least ten three-pointers this season - a fact that has made them a difficult team to defend.
"Everybody can step in there and knock it down, even our big man, Palacios, can shoot it," O'Bannon said.
"When Louisville is making their three pointers, they can beat anyone in the country," said East Carolina coach Bill Herrion after the Cardinals made 13-threes in a 92-41 win last week. "We just held our breath and prayed they wouldn't make their threes."
Unlike last season, opposing teams can't neglect Louisville inside and concentrate all their efforts to stopping the Cardinals' perimeter players - not with freshman sensation Juan Palacios and always reliable senior Ellis Myles both averaging double-figures.
"We're a tough team to zone, especially when we get it rolling," said Pitino.
With five starters averaging double-figures, and a bench that seemingly gets better each time out, especially since forward Otis George's return ten days ago, O'Bannon senses that the Cardinals are just now starting to find their groove.
"The last couple of seasons we've peaked at the wrong time," said O'Bannon. "So hopefully we're starting to peak at the right time."
Since his return from a foot injury that sidelined him earlier this season, George has proved a valuable spark off the bench. Last Saturday against Tennessee, it was George that helped Louisville turn a 53-50 deficit into an 85-62 rout. In his past two games, George has come up big for U of L, scoring 23 points and hauling down 14 rebounds in 37-minutes combined. Though his foot is still sore, George is playing better than ever.
"It's still sore a little bit but I just try to keep it out of my mind and keep playing," explained George. "When I'm playing, I don't feel it. I'm so glad to be back playing and having my boys back again."
Pitino says there's a simple explanation for why his team is starting to get things together on the court.
"We are playing better basketball. We are doing little things better," said Pitino. "We are pressing better and more intelligently."
The Cardinals are also winning the battle of the boards, which has helped trigger a deadly fast-break and allowed them to set up the full-court press more often than in past seasons.
"What happened during their run, you go back to the time outs that we called early in the first half with their press and that hurt in second half since we did not have many left to call," said UT coach Buzz Peterson. "Then I could not control the game during their run."
In the past three games against East Carolina, Cincinnati and Tennessee, Louisville out-rebounded the Pirates, Bearcats and Volunteers by a combined 37 boards. A remarkable figure considering the Cardinals tallest frontcourt player stands just 6 foot 8 (Palacios and George).
"Louisville's a good team...and they're very physical," Herrion said. "And their defense smothered us."
Even more amazing during Louisville's five-game win streak is that junior forward Francisco Garcia hasn't played to the level he's accustomed. He made just 5-of-24 shots combined against East Carolina and Cincinnati but finally appeared to break out of his mid-season mini-slump Saturday with 20 points and 9 boards against Tennessee.
"I'm not concerned [about Francisco]. He's just got to learn when to shoot when he's open and drive when he's guarded," Pitino said. "He'll be fine."
And even though Garcia hasn't played at his top form recently, the Cardinals have certainly played like one of the top teams in college basketball. A sign that bodes well for the nation's 12th ranked team as the season turns toward the home-stretch.