Pitino: Charlotte game will be "special"

Everything will be on the line Thursday night when No. 18 Charlotte takes the court at Freedom Hall to face No. 9 Louisville. At stake, the Conference USA regular-season title, the No. 1 seed in next week's C-USA tournament in Memphis - and, perhaps more importantly, late season momentum and seeding in this month's NCAA tournament.

Everything will be on the line Thursday night when No. 18 Charlotte takes the court at Freedom Hall to face No. 9 Louisville.

At stake, the Conference USA regular-season title, the No. 1 seed in next week's C-USA tournament in Memphis - and, perhaps more importantly, late season momentum and seeding in this month's NCAA tournament. To the winner, as they say, will go the spoils.

Making matters even more intriguing, and emotional, is that Louisville fans will bid farewell to three seniors - Ellis Myles, Larry O'Bannon and Otis George, and junior forward Francisco Garcia. Garcia, of course, will declare for this summer's NBA Draft following the season.

"This is probably the biggest home game we've had at Louisville since I've been the coach," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, "because of the ramifications and what the game means to a conference title, to a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, to a high seed in the NCAA tournament."

"So it's quite special," added Pitino. "It's not just another senior night. They're a special group and it's a special game. And I think it's the biggest game we've had here in my short tenure."

In Charlotte, the Cardinals might face their toughest opposition of the season. The Niners have won seven straight entering the game and boast two of the league's most talented players - 6-8 junior forward Curtis Withers and 6-5 senior forward Eddie Basden.

"They've got the most ingredients that make them a terrific basketball team," said Pitino. "They've got size, and talent in their junior and senior classes. They're very well coached. There's no question about it, they're an excellent basketball team."


Pitino says this is the biggest game
since he's been the coach at
Louisville

A very well-balanced team, Bobby Lutz' crew start three players averaging more than 13 points per game. Charlotte also has no problems scoring points. In fact, they've scored 80 or more points in six of the past seven games, including two games where they topped the 90 point mark.

"They're like us, if you concentrate on just Withers and Basden, then Plavich and Mitchell Baldwin will kill you," Pitino said. "So it's the whole team you have to concern yourself with."

The aforementioned Plavich also presents an array of problems for Pitino's defenders. A 6-2 senior, Plavich has the deepest range of any shooter in C-USA. He's made 95 three's this season, including eight long-range dagers in a 91-90 win over Cincinnati last month.

"We have it on film where he's eight feet past half-court and shoots a comfortable jumper," Pitino said of Plavich. "And that's what makes him so difficult because you can't come off of him."

Stopping Plavich will be primarily the task of the 6-4 O'Bannon.

"Larry's going to have his hands full," teammate Ellis Myles said. "But I think he'll be up for the task tomorrow night.

Despite Charlotte's talent, the Cardinals will have two things going for it that Charlotte won't. The first - home court advantage and nearly 20,000 loud and vocal supporters wearing red.

"I think anytime you play at home, it's an advantage," said Pitino. "Although we've been a great road team this year, playing at home is a major advantage."

Louisville's other advantage - their defense - should help them slow down one of the top offensive teams in the country. To win 7 of 8 games on the road, as U of L has done this season, has required great defensive effort, especially considering some of the double-digit deficits they've had to overcome in some pretty hostile envirnoments.

And what's made the Cardinals so tough defensively is that they can attack opponents in a variety of ways, whether its with full court pressure, relentless half court man-to-man, or the stingy 2-3 zone that limited Memphis to just 19-percent shooting last weekend.

"That shows that we're a very good defensive team and a veteran ball club," Pitino said. "They're very focused."

One of the other main story lines tomorrow night will be the matchup between perhaps the league's two best players - Francisco Garcia and Eddie Basden. And with all eyes on tomorrow night's game, the player who can lead his team to victory - and a league title, might have the upper hand to win Conference USA Player of the Year honors.

"Francisco knows what's on the line," Myles said. "So I'm pretty sure he'll show up for the challenge."

But the game won't be decided by any one player. This will be a game won by the best team. And the league's two most capable contenders - Louisville and Charlotte - will take center stage Thursday night to determine exactly who that will be.

"They're an outstanding ball club and we're an outstanding ball club," Pitino said. "It should be a heck of a game. With something this big at stake that's the way it should be. And we know it."

Everybody else knows it, too.


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