Without Diener, the Cardinals easily knocked off Marquette 99-52 Jan. 26 in Freedom Hall. Now, though, Diener is recovered from the ankle injury that sidelined him three weeks ago and scored 31 points, including the game winning jump shot in a 71-69 victory over East Carolina last Saturday.
"It's a totally different basketball game," said Pitino. "because he has the ball in his hands 60-70 percent of the time. He's such a big factor in what they do offensively."
Senior guard Larry O'Bannon concurs. "We expect it to be a different type of game being at their place and having Diener back," O'Bannon said. "We're expecting a totally different type of game but we're going in with the same type of mind set that we had at home."
To slow the 6-0 Diener, Pitino said he intends to play 6-3 sophomore Brandon Jenkins more at the point tonight. Jenkins, perhaps the Cardinals best on-ball defender, helped ignite Louisville in the first half last Saturday against South Florida with his hustle and effort at the defensive end of the court.
"We're going to play Taquan a little more at two-guard and play Brandon Jenkins more at one," said Pitino. "So I think that's going to help both of them. BJ's playing really good defense on the ball."
After struggling mightily a week ago in a 17-point loss to Memphis, then falling behind by 10 against the Bulls in Freedom Hall over the weekend, Pitino said his team – and the fans – need to realize that nothing comes easy late in the season in the heat of the conference race.
"That's behind us and we've just got to focus on this Marquette game," O'Bannon said of the lingering effects of the loss to Memphis. "The main thing is we have to get back to playing as a team."
That's exactly what Pitino has been preaching during recent practices – that the Cardinals need to return to the team approach, especially on offense, that helped them reel off nine straight victories before the lopsided loss to Memphis. In fact, during their nine-game win streak, the Cardinals were especially friendly to one another on offense, averaging nearly 15 assists per game. During the past two games, however, the Cards dished out just 19 total assists – almost five fewer per game than they were handing out when they were steam-rolling through the league.
"It's strange," said Pitino. "Against South Florida we tried to break our offense early on and go one-on-one and took some bad shots. Then suddenly we think we're off, we tighten up and don't play well."
"But when we space the court and run our offense, we score almost every single time or we get a good shot," Pitino continued. "When we go one-on-one, we do bad things and then our defense and boxing out is not as good."
And while Pitino says his team should have been disappointed following their performance against the Tigers, he also realizes that any win – even a nine point victory against a struggling South Florida team – should be cherished.
"They should have been down after Memphis but not after winning against South Florida," Pitino said of his players. "I think again that's part of the fool's gold of blowing people out and thinking that's the way conference play is. But conference play (is about) getting a victory any way you can, being happy and moving on. That's just the way it is."
It certainly is. And the road – literally - won't get any easier for Louisville, as the Cardinals have two other tough remaining games away from home (Memphis, and DePaul) after tonight's game. And Pitino knows full well the difficulty his team will face.
"We are playing tough games, there's no doubt about it," admitted Pitino. "It doesn't get any tougher than those road games. But we've had a terrific season - one that I'm very happy with. We've just got to keep it going."
"I think we've played our best basketball this year on the road," added Pitino. "We're a veteran team and (play) good on the road. That's (because) of the personality of this team. They handle adversity much better than they handle success."
To continue their winning ways down the home stretch, the Cardinals will need their experienced leaders, particularly Francisco Garcia, to step up and play like he did earlier this season. Garcia, who averages better than 16 points this season, has struggled offensively of late. He scored a combined 19 points on just 3-of-15 shooting from the field in Louisville past two games against Memphis and South Florida.
And if the Cardinals have learned their lessons, maybe they'll start blowing teams out like they did earlier this season – perhaps beginning tonight.
"The good news is we've made the corrections," Pitino said. "And I think you'll see that against Marquette."
GARCIA OK TO PLAY
On his post-game radio show last Saturday following his teams victory over South Florida, Louisville coach Rick Pitino indicated 6-7 forward Francisco Garcia might not be able to play against Marquette because of a deep thigh bruise suffered against the Bulls.
However, Pitino said yesterday afternoon that the Cardinals leading scorer will be available for tonight's key game against Marquette.
"He's feeling OK," said Pitino. "He didn't practice the past two days but he'll practice today and play against Marquette."
TIME 6:55 PM TV ESPN RADIO 84 WHAS, Sirius Satellite Radio NEXT GAME Sunday, Saint Louis