Cards flying high into tonight's rematch with UC

Since falling on the road to Houston January 5, No. 9 Louisville (18-3, 6-1) has played like a team capable of putting together a strong stretch run - winning 7 straight - mostly in impressive fashion. Included in that streak, of course, was a 69-66 comeback win over No. 17 Cincinnati, who visits Freedom Hall tonight for a rematch showdown on ESPN.

Rick Pitino might wish to slow down the hype about his No. 9 Louisville Cardinals (18-3, 6-1), but the fact of the matter is his team is one of the hottest outfits in college basketball.

Since falling on the road to Houston January 5, the Cardinals have played like a team capable of putting together a strong stretch run - winning 7 straight - mostly in impressive fashion. Included in that streak, of course, was a 69-66 comeback win over No. 17 Cincinnati, who visits Freedom Hall tonight for a rematch showdown on ESPN.

And the main reason for Louisville's improved play of late is that they've avoided the ills that have plagued them each of the past two seasons - injuries.

"Practice and health," Pitino explained when asked why his team has played so well since the loss to Houston. "Prior to that we were like a pro team - practices were like walk-through's. We weren't healthy enough to get a whole lot out of practice."

Pitino said his team's early season injuries aided in the development of some of his young players - players that are now starting to make significant contributions, including sophomores Brandon Jenkins and Perrin Johnson and freshmen forwards Juan Palacios and Lorrenzo Wade.

"It helped us in the long run," Pitino said of the injuries. "It's helped Tello develop faster than he would have otherwise. We also depended on other people more - Brandon Jenkins. And we developed a big man on campus in Larry O'Bannon."

O'Bannon, the Cardinals second leading scorer at 14.6 points per game, is perhaps the teams most improved player this season. Now, with just nine game remaining in the regular season, Pitino is constantly striving to produce improvement from some others, namely Palacios and 6-7 center Ellis Myles.

"We're searching for continued improvement right now because we're not good enough at this point in the season to legitimately expect grand thoughts," said Pitino. "But if we keep on improving we can go that route."

"One of the things that we're looking at with our basketball team right now is where can we get improvement," he added. "The obvious [place] is Juan Diego - being the youngest, he has the most room for improvement."

If Pitino can coax Palacios to become a consistent force on the boards and straighten out Myles' often wayward free-throw shooting and occasional turnover problems, the coach likes his chances down the stretch with this team.

"What I've always liked about this team - this is the first team I've had at Louisville that is professional about becoming a good basketball team," Pitino said. "Basketball is a very serious business with these young men and it has created a great atmosphere and great chemistry."

What makes this team so unique in the chemistry department? "You have to have unselfish people totally focused on the team instead of themselves," said Pitino. "And this team is definitely focused that way. They realize that their individual benefits can only be derived from the team's success."

Since a shaky first half 2 1/2 weeks ago in Cincinnati, when the Cardinals fell behind by 17 points, Pitino's team has been soaring - both on the court and in the polls. They've scored at least 85 points in the four games since the come from behind win over the Bearcats, including an 85-62 pasting of Tennessee and a 47-point win against rival Marquette, the worst loss in the schools' history.

"The first half we were totally taken out of what we wanted to do by their defense," explained Pitino of his teams struggles in Cincinnati. "In the second half, we started to play north and south instead of east and west. And we picked up our pressure and played more zone."

While the Cardinals certainly look like one of the nation's best teams, Pitino said three teams - Illinois, North Carolina and Wake Forest - currently stand above a crowded field of capable contenders, including his own team. "Those are the three best teams I've seen over a period of time." Pitino said. "But that doesn't mean [any number of teams] can win it all. After those three, we're part of the next mix."

So what will it take for Louisville to crash the Final Four party later this season?

"It's helpful to get a seed 1-through-4. That's very helpful and a good start," said Pitino. "Then you've got to be healthy and playing your best basketball at the end of the year. And you need some breaks."

If Pitino has found a way to rid the injury-demons of seasons' past, he might not need many breaks to get where he wants this team to go - which is where every coach hopes to end this season - in Saint Louis.


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