Cards playing way into coveted NCAA seed

With seven regular-season games remaining in the 2004-05 season, No. 9 Louisville has an excellent opportunity to finish strong and capture a highly coveted 1 or 2 seed in next month's NCAA Tournament. And though Rick Pitino's team is still flying under the national radar, word is beginning to get out that these Cardinals are for real.

With seven regular-season games remaining in the 2004-05 season, No. 9 Louisville has an excellent opportunity to finish strong and capture a highly coveted 1 or 2 seed in next month's NCAA Tournament.

Winners of nine straight and 14 of their past 15 games heading into tonight's ESPN clash with rival Memphis (13-10, 6-3), Rick Pitino's Cardinals are one of the hottest teams in the country.

In dispatching both Cincinnati and UAB, both likely NCAA tournament teams, last week, Louisville showed the college basketball world they're a team to be reckoned with. In fact, several anaylsts, including ESPN's Jimmy Dykes and Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis, are now jumping on the Cardinals bandwagon, picking Louisville to reach the Four Four.

So what's made the difference for the Cardinals this year?

"Last year we had the combination of a bad schedule and injuries," Pitino said. "That's a bad combination."

Pitino's right. Last season, injuries to Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia, combined with a brutal stretch of road games late in the season took a heavy toll on the Cardinals, resulting in a 10-seed and first round NCAA loss to Xavier.

This season, however, Louisville will play four of their final seven games in Freedom Hall, including tonight's game against the Tigers. And, unlike the past two years, the Cardinals are finally healthy when it counts the most. Both factors should help U of L continue their winning ways and attain a favorable seeding in the NCAA tournament.

"We looked at the seeding (for the NCAA Tournament) the last ten years and 87.5% of teams that made the Final Four were seeds 1-4," said Pitino. "That doesn't mean (if you're a higher seed) you can't make a Final Four - it just makes it more difficult. If you're a (high) seed, you've got to go through that meat-grinder for four games (to reach the Final Four)."

And while his team is playing well, Pitino knows there still remains much room for improvement, especially if the Cardinals plan on challenging Illinois, North Carolina and Wake Forest - three teams Pitino rates above the rest - for the national title in Saint Louis.

"I think we still have plenty of room for improvement, which is the good thing," Pitino said. "When you're looking at the likes of Illinois and North Carolina, there better be a lot of room for improvement for a lot of teams. They just seem so much better than anyone that we have to find ways to get better and become one of the elite teams.

Where does Pitino think his team can improve?

"Ellis, Tello, Otis and even Francisco have a lot of room for improvement," said Pitino. "I think there's significant improvement left in the guys I just mentioned."

And while Garcia hasn't been as dynamic the past few games as fans have become accustomed - his turnovers are up and shooting percentage down - Pitino still seems pleased with his junior star forward.

"You don't measure Francisco statistically," said Pitino. "I don't think he's a big stat guy even though he may have the best stats on the team. He's valauable because he makes other players better. He's the only guy on the team that can create a shot for himself and others."


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