tampabay.com

Struggling Cardinals need wins, and fast

By GREG AUMAN
Published February 11, 2006


At the Big East preseason media gathering at Madison Square Garden in October, Louisville coach Rick Pitino was asked if he sympathized with lesser programs that could be a victim of the 16-team league's depth, left out of the NCAA Tournament as the conference's ninth or 10th-best team.

"That could be us," a wary Pitino warned, but it's still unlikely he knew what was ahead for his Cardinals, who league coaches picked to finish third in their first Big East season.

After an 11-1 start, Louisville is 15-8 with a 3-7 league record, 13th in the league and needing to finish in the top 12 to make the Big East tournament. No conference has sent more than seven teams to the NCAA Tournament, so the Cardinals need a quick turnaround to avoid the disappointing embarrassment of missing the NCAA cut one year after reaching the Final Four.

For now, Pitino is just hoping to get his team into the Big East tournament field.

"I think it's possible, not probable," Pitino said Friday of his team's chances. "To have a guaranteed trip to New York, we're going to have to win seven games. I don't feel good about it, but if we win seven, we'll get there."

Today's game with USF (6-16, 0-9) looks like a safe win, but Louisville's remaining six league games include trips to three of the league's toughest venues, Connecticut, Syracuse and West Virginia. And much of Louisville's struggles have come at home, where the Cardinals lost early games to Connecticut and Pittsburgh, albeit with leading scorer Taquan Dean out with a high ankle sprain.

A loss today would be USF's 12th straight, matching the longest streak in school history, but Pitino said he respects the Bulls after watching their league games, which include six losses by six points or less.

"This is a basketball team that plays every single team tough," he said. "They can compete in the Big East and they are competing. We're just hoping we're not the unlucky ones to give them their first victory."

The five Conference USA teams that joined the Big East this season have struggled, with a combined 16-33 league record, including an 8-25 mark against old Big East schools. In the coaches' preseason poll, USF was the only C-USA team not picked to make the conference tournament, but Louisville and DePaul would also miss the cut if the season ended today.

Pitino's hope lies in getting back to Madison Square Garden, knowing a strong showing there would likely get his team among the Big East contingent making the NCAA cut. Last year, West Virginia went 8-8 in league play and was seeded eighth, but the Mountaineers reached the conference championship, made the NCAA cut and advanced to the regional final before losing in overtime to Pitino's Cardinals.

"If we make it to New York, then you have a legitimate chance if you win a game or two there," Pitino said. "West Virginia wasn't going to the NCAAs (before the league tournament) last year."