Those setbacks dropped Rick Pitino's squad to 6-4 in the Big East, a precarious position for a team hoping to get back into the NCAA Tournament. Then something big happened for Louisville – the Cardinals won three consecutive league games, including a pair of eye-opening road wins over nationally-ranked Pittsburgh and Marquette.
Since falling to Georgetown, 73-65, Feb. 7, the Cardinals have played impressively in wins over South Florida (83-63), Pittsburgh (66-53) and Marquette 61-59). Perhaps the biggest reason for Louisville's reversal of fortune since the setback against the Hoya's has been the emergence of 6-9 freshman Derrick Caracter.
Caracter's story has been well-documented this season. He missed all but one of the Cardinals Big East games this season until being inserted back into the lineup Feb. 10 against South Florida. Since then, Louisville has looked – and played – like a different team.
Since returning to the lineup, the 265-pound Caracter has provided a formidable inside presence for a team that had too often relied on its perimeter players to produce offensively without him. In Louisville's last three games, Caracter has scored 16, 8 and 14, and played a key role in the Cards' buzzer-beating win Saturday night against Marquette after starting center David Padgett got into early foul trouble.
Now, with three Big East games remaining against St. John's, UConn and Seton Hall, Louisville appears a virtual lock to be included in next month's NCAA Tournament. ESPN's Joe Lunardi currently projects Louisville as a 7-seed, and the Cardinals checked into the Associated Press poll at No. 20 this week.
game up recently. (Troy Turbeville)
Just as importantly as moving back into the national polls, the Cardinals are on track to receive a first-round bye in next month's Big East Tournament. If Louisville wins all three of their remaining games, they would be a 3-seed, at worst, in the league tourney. If the Cardinals win 2 of their remaining 3 contests, it appears likely they'd be one of four teams to earn first-round byes.
At present, both Pittsburgh and Georgetown appear locks to receive first round byes in the Big East tournament. Louisville, who now owns sole possession of third place behind the Panthers and Hoyas, clearly is in the driver's seat for the third seed. Four teams, Marquette, Notre Dame, West Virginia and Syracuse, each have realistic hopes for a first-round bye.
Here's a closer look at the remaining Big East schedules for teams still in the mix for a first round bye in next month's Big East Tournament in New York:
Louisville (9-4): St. John's; @ UConn; Seton Hall
Marquette (9-5): @ Notre Dame; (10) Pittsburgh
Syracuse (8-5): @ Providence; (12) Georgetown; @ Villanova