Cards look for Big East sweep

No. 5 Louisville (25-5), the regular-season Big East champions, opens Big East Tournament play Thursday with a quarterfinal matchup against Providence (18-12). The Cardinals beat the Friars, who came from behind to knock off DePaul Wednesday, 94-76 last month at home.

Madison Square Garden hasn't been a friendly post-season environment for the Cardinals in three prior trips to the Big East Tournament since the Cardinals joined the league four years ago.

In three attempts, Louisville's best finish in the Big East Tournament was a run to the semifinals two years ago before falling to Pittsburgh. Last season, as the #2-seed, Louisville dropped an overtime quarterfinal matchup to eventual Big East Tournament champion Pittsburgh. The Panthers also knocked the Cardinals out of the tournament in '06. Louisville has won just once in four prior Big East Tournament games.

Fortunately, the Cardinals won't cross paths with the Panthers until the finals – if both teams advance that far. Before the Cardinals can worry about a potential Big East title game matchup against either Pittsburgh or UConn, they'll have to find a way to get past Providence, who beat DePaul 83-74 Wednesday in the Garden.

"A victory – that's always our ultimate goal," Rick Pitino said. "We've experienced enough. We just need to get victories. It comes down to execution and matchups. That's where the science comes into our game – it's about matchups."

Pitino says his team will come ready to play hard in the Big East Tournament. It's clear the Cardinals would like to sweep the Big East regular-season and tournament titles before heading into the NCAA Tournament next week. But even with a possible #1 seed on the line, Pitino knows the Big East Tournament isn't a make or break proposition for his team.

Samardo Samuels hopes to lead Louisville
deep into the Big East Tournament.

"It (losing to Pittsburgh early in the tournament) didn't hurt us last year – we (still) went to the Elite 8," Pitino said. "We want to win another championship but we just spent three months to win the (regular-season) championship. We're not going to beat ourselves up over three days but we're going in there and you'll see how hard we'll play and we want to win badly."

The Cards have to feel good about their quarterfinal matchup against the Friars, who they beat 94-76 Feb. 18 in Louisville. Despite trailing Providence 46-45 at the break, Louisville blitzed the Friars in the second half to pull away for the win. The Cardinals shot 54.7 percent from the floor against the Friars.

"We played like Providence (in the first half) and if you play like they play you're in trouble," Pitino said. "(We) can't play that way. Quick shots – trying to match them shot for shot. In the second half we didn't do that and came away with a victory."

Since winning the Big East regular-season title last weekend in Morgantown with a 62-59 win over West Virginia, Louisville has been thrown into the national discussion for a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has the Cardinals as the top-seed in the West Region. A win or two this week in New York would do nothing but help solidify Louisville's case as one of the NCAA Tournament's top four seeds.

That's quite an accomplishment for a team that lost to Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV before the start of Big East play. It should be pointed out that all three of those teams are projected to be in the NCAA field by Lunardi – and, in fact, the Hilltoppers earned an automatic bid by winning the Sun Belt Tournament Tuesday night.

"We were just not practicing well early in the year like I hoped but we picked it up when the Big East started," said Pitino. "It started with the Kentucky game. We've had trouble with an overpowering center like Thabeet but that's it. The rest of the team's we've lost to but we've played well against zones, man and half court and our parts have come together much better. All of our guys are playing very good basketball."

Three of the Cardinals' starters earned postseason Big East honors. Terrence Williams was named to the All-Big East first team while Earl Clark was a third team selection. Freshman center Samardo Samuels was named to the Big East All-Rookie team.

"Our guys got better as the season went along," Pitino said. "We've played five new faces and our two five men have really improved. Samardo and TJ have both had very good freshmen seasons. Terrence Jennings has really gotten significantly better at every phase of his game and that's great for us.

"I think that Jerry Smith, Preston Knowles and Andre McGee have had great years. The three of those guys are playing very good basketball right now. That's good. T-Will's playing great basketball."

Entering post-season tournament action, Louisville has won seven straight games and 17 of their last 19. The Cardinals were 8-1 on the road this season and 5-1 against Top 25 teams.

"I think our guys have withstood the test of time. They've worked hard and developed their confidence," Pitino said. "I think they had to really learn how to play without David Padgett – he was such a bailout guy. He bailed them out of every situation. We've learned how to do that and we're a much better defensive team than we were last year. Our press last year was average to good. Our press this year is very good."

Louisville plans to use their full court press to their advantage against Providence – a team that committed 22 turnovers that resulted in 27 Louisville points in the first meeting between the two teams – Thursday afternoon.

"Whether this is the toughest conference in history nobody knows," Pitino said. "It's all subjective. But I do know it's the toughest since the inception of the Big East. There was not much celebration when we won at West Virginia. All we did was smoke a cigar and get ready for practice."

Tip-off is at 12 p.m. and will be televised live on ESPN.

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