Intrinsically Motivated

There is only one program in the Big East Conference that the WVU men's basketball team's two seniors have never beaten. With that Louisville team coming to Morgantown tomorrow for a showdown at high noon, it hasn't been hard for Bob Huggins to get the Mountaineers' attention in practice.

"It's been addressed," said the third-year West Virginia head coach, in a classic bit of understatement, when asked about the program's struggles against the Cardinals.

Beyond a chance for Da'Sean Butler and Wellington Smith to finally earn a victory over a foe that has given them problems in recent seasons, the game still counts the same as any other Big East game. But with the No. 9 Mountaineers already sporting a pair of league losses, each game is of additional importance.

"I think in the big picture, they understand this is a game we need to win," Huggins said. "If we still harbor any intentions of winning the league and hanging a Big East championship banner, we need to win this game."

While Louisville isn't likely to win the conference this season, as it did a year ago with eventual NBA lottery picks choices Terrence Williams and Earl Clark, it still is a threat to compete with just about anyone.

That has been evident of late, despite the fact that U of L (13-7, 4-3) has lost three of its last four games.

It started with a painful home loss to then-No. 4 Villanova. The Wildcats took a 92-84 victory back to Philadelphia after overcoming a 17-point Cards lead in the first half at Freedom Hall.

Louisville then had a surging, then-No. 20 Pittsburgh team on the ropes at the Petersen Events Center, but allowed the Panthers to come back and earn an 82-77 overtime win by missing several free throws down the stretch.

Seton Hall's Jeremy Hazell then poured in 25 points to help break down the 2-3 zone employed by Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, and the Pirates held on to give U of L its third straight "L."

Pitino and company finally stopped the bleeding with a 68-60 home win over Cincinnati last Sunday. They have been able to rest and prepare to take on the No. 9 Mountaineers since.

By contrast, West Virginia (16-3, 5-2) has had since Tuesday to get ready for Louisville's infamous pressure defense -- a trademark of Pitino's teams. But Huggins said that defense is actually a combination of several approaches.

"I think what they do a great job of is changing defenses and changing their pressure," he said. "They've shown more of a 2-2-1 look, but it's always been run-and-jump. They do put a guy over the ball. They change it up on you. They change how much they pressure the inbounds pass."

Unlike many other teams that play pressure defense, the Cardinals have been dropping into a 2-3 zone when teams manage to make it into the front-court. That is a rare look, but Huggins said it's a concept that makes sense.

"It's actually easier to press and go back to a zone than it is to press and go back to a man," he explained. "If you press and go back to a man, you end up with a lot of mismatches, unless it's just a man-to-man press. It works because he coaches them. He's a hell of a coach."

U of L's 2-3 zone is quite a bit different from that employed by familiar Big East foes like Syracuse and Notre Dame. Huggins said that is the result of some tweaking by Pitino to help account for the relative strengths and weaknesses of this year's Cardinals squad.

"Rick's done a great job of changing the 2-3 zone," he said. "He probably doesn't have the size and strength he had maybe a year ago -- or the athleticism -- so he's changed how they do things. It's a lot more of a match-up (zone) now." "You have to have personnel to do that. Rick's had time to recruit the personnel he wanted."

Indeed, the Cards are still a talented group despite losing Clark and Williams from last year's juggernaut of a team, which took home the Big East Tournament championship trophy from Madison Square Garden.

Skilled sophomore center Samardo Samuels leads the way, averaging 15.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per contest.

But senior guard Edgar Sosa -- infamous to WVU fans for his buzzer-beating lay-up that many believed should have been nullified by a traveling violation in a Big East quarterfinal game in 2007 -- is still around to lead the back-court. He contributes 13.9 points per game.

While Louisville's offense is still putting up 80.1 points per game, it's the pressure defense the visitors will use that is of greater concern to Huggins. That's largely because so many of those points are generated off turnovers, which the Cards force 13.9 times per contest.

"Pressure is what you make of it," Huggins said, before recalling last year's loss to the Cardinals at the WVU Coliseum, which saw Alex Ruoff go scoreless on Senior Night, helping the visitors secure their first Big East regular season championship with a 62-59 win.

"We had three freshmen in our top six a year ago, and Alex had the worst game of his career here. It shouldn't be what it was in the first half (when Louisville built a lead of as many as 10 points), but in the second half, we kind of settled down. It is what you make of it. You can't panic. Pressure thrives on people panicking."

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