It seems that every time Louisville and West Virginia square off on the hardwood, something big is on the line. Three seasons ago, the schools met in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in a winner take all, on to St. Louis and the Final Four scenario. West Virginia sprinted out to a seemingly insurmountable lead at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M. only to watch Francisco Garcia and his Cardinal teammates storm back to take the game and Final Four spot.
During the quarterfinals of last season's Big East tournament, the teams battled to another instant classic at Madison Square Garden, bringing the capacity crowd to its feet, and treating the Big Apple to the tournament's most competitive game of the week. It took overtime and some last second heroics from U of L's Edgar Sosa to ultimately put the Cardinals over the top.
While Thursday night's game at Freedom Hall might not have the immediate postseason implications of those previous meetings, a road win by West Virginia would likely be another big boost to its NCAA hopes.
The Cardinals, expected by most to at the very least compete for the league title in 2008, have been plagued by injuries and inconsistency so far this season. Yet as Big East play revs up, Rick Pitino's squad is nearing full strength. With last week's return of senior center David Padgett from an early season injury, the Cards are ready to rebound – both literally and figuratively – from their uncharacteristic struggles.
First-year Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins may be a bit green in terms of his Big East experience, but playing the Cardinals in their building is certainly nothing new for the newest member of college basketball's 600 win club. During his tenure at Cincinnati, Huggins and the Bearcats visited Freedom Hall frequently.
"It's a great environment," he said. "They've got 18,000 people in there no matter who they play, and they come to watch the Cardinals, which is how it's supposed to be. They're very knowledgeable basketball fans, and they're very classy. They appreciate good basketball and they root like heck for their team, but it's a class deal to go into. You know, it's not like going into some places where it's not very classy. It's a great basketball environment."
It also happens to be one of the few places these Mountaineers have yet to play in the Big East, bringing an unknown element into the equation Thursday night. For a team which thrives on the outside shot, going into an unfamiliar environment can sometimes be a dicey proposition. Other times, for instance when the Mountaineers are flat out feeling it from behind the arc, location couldn't matter less. For his part, Huggins doesn't see the big arena as being a challenge for his team when it comes to shooting the rock.
"We're going to shoot a little bit (Wednesday night at shootaround), but I think it's a great environment to shoot in," he noted. "We've never had any problems shooting the ball there."
What could prove to be problematic is battling for rebounds with physical Cardinals such as Padgett, Derrick Caracter, Juan Palacios, and Earl Clark. West Virginia's smaller front line will be challenged yet again, just as they were in recent losses to big-bodied teams such as Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
"We've got to rebound the ball," Huggins said, echoing a theme he has preached from day one in Morgantown. "They're really big. We can't let Caracter and Padgett and Palacios have their way. We're going to have to rebound the ball, and they're going to play a lot of zone so we're going to have to make some shots."
A zone? From a Rick Pitino coached team? You read that correctly. Once known as the king of full court, man-to-man pressure which sent his players running and jumping at the ball for 93 feet, Pitino has become much more Boeheim-esque during his time in the River City. Instead of running the full-court pressure, the Cardinals have moved to more of a 2-2-1 look, even dropping back into a 2-3 in the halfcourt.
The bad news for Big East foes is that no matter what defense Pitino opts to run, his team is still executing to a T.
Solving the zone, crashing the boards, and making shots are all keys to victory for West Virginia. That is not to say that those three things alone are all it will take to topple the Cardinals, but doing each effectively will certainly lessen the burden for visitors in blue.
One thing sorely needed on WVU's tournament resume is a solid road win. Beating Louisville would qualify as such, and give the Mountaineers yet another confidence boost as they continue marching towards their goals in the rugged Big East.
"We're playing to win a league championship, which means you're going to have to beat (teams such as Louisville). It's a great game for us," Huggins said. "We need some road wins, obviously. I think we're playing pretty well right now. We're starting to shoot the ball a lot better again. We're looking forward to it."
"It" possibly being yet another instant classic between West Virginia and U of L.