Louisville is coming off an exhilarating last second road victory over Marquette, when Jerry Smith's three-point dagger as time expired Saturday night gave the Cardinals a, 61-59, win – their third straight.
With three regular season games remaining and riding an impressive three-game winning streak that likely has them bound for the NCAA Tournament, the challenge for Louisville now is to remain hungry and not get complacent.
"We have to step up and not let up," U of L coach Rick Pitino said. "We can't embrace anything that we've accomplished - we have to keep on improving. We have room for improvement because we're so young."
With such a young team, one might expect some sort of letdown after back-to-back wins over Top 20 opponents. Pitino, however, said he's really not that concerned that his players will overlook St. John's, a team that beat U of L last season, 68-56.
"I would be concerned under normal circumstances, but they've got a little bit of a chip on their shoulder," Pitino said. "I haven't sensed any overconfidence in this basketball team at all. I think they're very proud of their accomplishments, but I think they realize there's a lot of basketball left to be played.
The Cardinals, at 9-4 in the Big East, currently own sole possession of third place. That's an envious position to be in with only two weeks left in the regular-season.
"We still have a lot to accomplish with our basketball team," said Pitino. "We're shooting to finish second or third in our conference. It's probably a little unrealistic for first because there are so few games remaining and I don't think (Georgetown and Pittsburgh) are going to get more than one (more) loss."
St. John's enters tonight's game with a clear purpose. Currently in 11th place in the Big East standings, the Red Storm are trying to win enough games to get into the Big East tournament for the first time since 2003. With a 6-8 league record, St. John's knows the importance of each of their remaining games.
"We're trying to get to the Big East Tournament and (into) postseason play," Red Storm coach Norm Roberts said. "Every play counts. Every possession counts. You have to do the little things to be successful and we try to point that out to all of our guys."
Derrick Caracter could play an
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St. John's is coming off a disappointing, 71-66, loss to Providence over the weekend. The Red Storm got big performances from their frontcourt in that contest, as Lamont Hamilton, Anthony Mason and Qa'rraan Calhoun combined for 53 points. St. John's, however, struggled from the perimeter, making just 5-of-20 three pointers and were man-handled on the boards, 39-24.
"Offensively, we got the ball exactly where we needed it to be, we just didn't finish the plays," Roberts said. "We have to make sure we make those plays. When we win games, it's because we made those plays."
Led by guard Eugene Lawrence's 18 points, St. John's St. manhandled Louisville on the boards last season, out-rebounding the Cardinals 41-26. The Red Storm also held Louisville 17 points below their average.
"They're capable of beating anyone and we're going to have to bring our best game to beat them," Pitino said. "I think they're a much improved team, and obviously they drilled us pretty good last year on the backboard. We took a tough loss to them and they're a much better basketball team. They still have the same defensive toughness and they've improved dramatically from last year."
Louisville could be without junior forward Juan Palacios, who hasn't practiced since playing Saturday night against Marquette. Palacios is suffering from back spasms. If he can't play, Pitino said he could start either 6-9 Derrick Caracter or 6-5 Perrin Johnson in Palacios' place or go with a smaller lineup with Terrence Williams at power forward. "I've had a lot of confidence in Derrick of late," Pitino said.
With or without Palacios, Pitino expects a tough and physical game against St. John's.
"This is a big opportunity for our basketball team," Pitino said. "I'm real proud of them right now, (but) we know what we're in for with St. John's. They took us to the woodshed last year and just annialated us on the glass."
With a first round bye in next month's Big East tournament within their grasp, the Cardinals' goal, according to Pitino, is to finish the regular-season strong.
"Our goal is to win our last three games," Pitino said. "We still have to win to get into the tournament and we know that. We're young, but we're peaking at the right time and we are playing our best basketball right now."