Thursday, February 27, 2003

Louisville stumbles into Marquette game

By Chris Duncan
The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Louisville has lost three of its last four, but coach Rick Pitino said the Cardinals aren't playing any worse now than they were during their 17-game winning streak.

Following Louisville's 101-80 loss at Cincinnati last Saturday, Pitino broke down the film and compared his team's performance to some of its best games this season.

He found little difference.

"We're making the same mistakes, doing the same things we were doing when we were winning," Pitino said Wednesday. "It's just that we're playing some tough teams on the road, and they're beating us.

"We're the same team. We just made shots. And shooting cures a multitude of sins."

The Bearcats' blowout came one week after Louisville's 73-70 win at Marquette, a game Pitino called one of the best he's ever coached in.

The now-11th-ranked Cardinals (19-4, 9-3 Conference USA) and the No. 10 Golden Eagles (20-4, 11-2) meet again on Thursday at Freedom Hall.

"It was a great college basketball game. We played extremely well in so many areas," Pitino said of the Cardinals' Feb. 15 victory in Milwaukee sealed by Reece Gaines' 3-pointer with 5.5 seconds left.

Marquette has won its last two games since the defeat.

"None of us treated it like it was a devastating loss," Marquette coach Tom Crean said of the first Louisville game. "We treated it like it was a loss to a very good team, that we needed to respond from very quickly. That's exactly what everybody did."

Now, it's Louisville's turn to bounce back from a tough loss. Cincinnati was the first team to beat the Cardinals by double digits this season.

Pitino isn't worried.

"I've been addressing this since day one - that we are going to have some bumps in the road and they're going to happen in February," he said. "We've addressed it."

Pitino said neither Louisville nor Marquette have a psychological edge in the rematch stemming from the tightly contested meeting two week ago. The victory hasn't made preparations for Thursday's game any easier, Pitino said.

"They are a difficult team to prepare for," Pitino said. "Their backcourt is as strong as any backcourt in the nation, they've got big, strong, powerful people inside, they've got shooting wings, they're great at the defensive end. They've got all the ingredients to play well."

The Cardinals had been in firm control of the Conference USA regular-season race, but now trail Marquette and are tied with Memphis in the overall league standings.

Conference USA is ranked only eighth among all Division I-A leagues, according to the Ratings Percentage Index, which measures overall winning percentage, strength of schedule and strength of opponents' schedules. The RPI is a key ingredient to the NCAA's tournament selection process.

The league has four of the top 30 teams in the RPI, and Pitino said Conference USA has earned more respect than it's getting.

"It's tough," Pitino said. "I feel very confident we have some teams who will not only make the (NCAA) tournament but do quite well. I've been in the Big East and the Southeastern Conference, and this is as good as it gets."

The way Pitino sees it, his Cardinals and the Eagles are among a large group of Top 25 teams that aren't great but are good enough to make a deep run through the NCAA tournament.

"We're not part of that elite two or three teams that just dominate people," Pitino said. "We've just been on a great run. Collectively, if we're all focused in and if our desire is off the charts, we can play like a great team on a given night.

"But if you asked me, 'Are we a great basketball team?' I would say, 'No.' And I've coached some great ones. This is not a great one."

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