Louisville rides hot-streak down the stretch

Since a Feb. 12 dismantling at Notre Dame, No. 6 Louisville has played its best basketball of the season. The Cardinals have won four straight heading into Sunday's showdown against No. 8 Marquette and look to stay hot against the Golden Eagles.

Call Louisville's 90-57 loss at South Bend earlier this month whatever you want – an aberration, a wakeup call – but the Cardinals haven't been the same since. That's good news for Rick Pitino.

The Cardinals have been scorching hot in their last four games – wins over DePaul (99-54), Providence (94-76), Cincinnati (72-63) and Georgetown (76-58). Though Louisville won their first 18 games this season by more than 10 points per contest, the Cardinals have blown through their last four opponents by an impressive 22.5 points per game.

Louisville's scoring margin isn't the only statistic that's way up over the past four games. Louisville is also rebounding better – and playing great defense. The Cardinals have definitely got it going on both ends of the court.

If there has been one knock on Louisville this season it's been their uninspiring – at times - offense. But since scoring 57 points in the loss to Notre Dame more than two weeks ago, Louisville has been a different team on offense, averaging 85.2 points in their last four games, including 90+ point efforts against DePaul and Providence.

Now back to form after being slowed by a
wrist injury, Terrence Williams hopes
to lead Louisville to the Big East title.

Improved passing has fueled Louisville's improvements at the offensive end of the court. The Cardinals have handed out 77 assists in the past four games, leading to dramatically better shooting. Louisville is shooting 54 percent from the floor in their last four wins, including a torrid 49 percent from the three-point line. That's a dramatic improvement in a short period of time for a team that made just 43 percent in their first 23 games this season.

One of the top defensive teams in the nation all season, Louisville – with its improved offensive efficiency - has put together some impressive stretches during their current winning streak. These four illustrate the point best:

*In the rout of DePaul, Louisville scored the first 13 and last 13 points of the first half to build a 51-21 halftime lead. The Cardinals made 18 three's against the Blue Demons.

*In a 94-76 win over Providence, Louisville used a 19-1 second half run to put away the Friars – the same Providence team that beat Pittsburgh Monday night. The Cardinals held the high-scoring Friars scoreless for nearly six minutes during that stretch.

*On the road against Cincinnati, Louisville used a 13-3 run to build a 67-54 lead with four minutes left in the game. The Cardinals cruised home for 72-63 victory.

*Against Georgetown, Louisville made their first nine shots of the game, shooting 70 percent in the first half and making all six three-point attempts before the break. The Cards used a 10-2 run in the final three minutes to down the Hoyas 76-54.

While Louisville's offense has been on a significant upswing, so has the Cardinals effort on the boards. Out-rebounded 48-28 by Notre Dame, the Cardinals have out-rebounded three of their last four opponents. Louisville had a 38-27 edge on tough-minded Cincinnati – one of the Big East's top three rebounding teams, and beat Georgetown on the boards 34-27. The Cards have out-boarded their last four opponents by a 5.5 margin – better than their 3.2 margin in their prior 23 games.

Using a suffocating mix of zone, man-to-man and full court pressure, Louisville has also turned up the heat defensively.

"The press gives us another dimension, not only getting us steals, but physically wearing our (opponents) down," Pitino said.

The Cardinals have forced 64 turnovers in their last four games, including 10 steals against Georgetown. Louisville leads the Big East in steals (8.7) and is generating 17.4 points per game off turnovers.

Louisville is also allowing their fewest points in 60 years (61.6). Not since 1948-49 have the Cardinals held opponents in check like Pitino's current vintage. The Cardinals have held eight of their last 15 opponents below 40 percent shooting, including a pair of Top 10-ranked foes – No. 10 Villanova and No. 1 Pittsburgh.

"They come at you in waves," said Georgetown center Greg Monroe. "They throw...people out of rhythm."

With just three remaining Big East games left, the Cardinals appear to be clicking on all cylinders heading down the home stretch. After finishing second in the league race last season, Louisville has much at stake in their final three regular-season games – their first Big East title, a Top 10 national ranking and, more importantly, NCAA Tournament seeding.

Louisville heads into Sunday's Top 10 showdown against Marquette (Golden Eagle PG Dominic James broke his foot against UConn and is out for the rest of the season) 1/2 game behind league-leader UConn (14-2). The Huskies own the tie-breaker with Louisville because of their victory over the Cards in early February, but still must travel to No. 1 Pittsburgh.

"I thought 12-6 would be a very good season with the league this year," said Pitino. "But we've been a great road team - the best road team in the Big East over the last three years - and that's one of the reasons why we're 13-2."

With Marquette, Seton Hall and West Virginia still to play it figures to be an exciting race to the finish for the Cards.

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