Louisville opened this season with high expectations before hitting a rough patch at the end of December. With that stretch behind them, the Cardinals are playing like a contender for the national title.
After knocking off the nation’s No. 1 team, the ninth-ranked Cardinals look to continue their surge and avoid a letdown on Wednesday when they visit a Rutgers squad that has lost six in a row.
Louisville (13-3, 4-0 Big East) opened this season as the third-ranked team in the AP poll, but dropped to No. 23 on Jan. 5 after suffering its second loss in three games, 56-55 to UNLV on New Year’s Eve.
After closing 2008 in disappointing fashion, the Cardinals have won all five games in the new year, including the last three over ranked opponents.
Louisville’s biggest win of the season came on Saturday, when it defeated then-No. 1 Pittsburgh 69-63. The Cardinals, who beat then-No. 12 Notre Dame 87-73 in overtime on Jan. 12, jumped 11 spots in the poll.
“We talked about the ‘what ifs’ in the world and you cannot look back and say what if we would have done this,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “The time is now and our guys have picked it up and played well.”
The Cardinals used their suffocating defense to beat the Panthers.
Louisville trailed 55-45 with 8:48 remaining, but held Pitt to 1-of-16 shooting the rest of the way. The Cardinals, who have limited opponents to 38.2 percent shooting in their four league games, also forced the Panthers into a season-high 20 turnovers.
“We are strong-willed and a strong-minded team,” senior forward Terrence Williams said. “For us to be 4-0 and beat great competition and the No. 1 team, it speaks volumes. We’re not done yet until we hold up that last trophy.”
Williams led Louisville with 20 points on Saturday, while Earl Clark had 16 points - including the clinching jumper with 45 seconds remaining - and 11 rebounds for his third straight double-double.
While the Cardinals are off to their best start in conference play since opening 6-0 in Conference USA in 2003-04, the Scarlet Knights (9-9, 0-5) are off to another awful start.
Rutgers lost to Cincinnati 71-59 last Wednesday, the first time in six games it did not face a ranked opponent.
After closing out their non-conference schedule with a 97-75 defeat to then-No. 1 North Carolina, the Scarlet Knights lost to Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Marquette and Syracuse before facing the Bearcats.
Rutgers had a 16-point lead over Cincinnati, but was outscored 42-23 in the second half to lose for the 14th time in its last 15 Big East games.
“We’ve got a bunch of young guys on the floor,” coach Fred Hill said. “They’ve got to learn how to finish games up. You go on the road in the Big East and get up by 16, you’re supposed to finish the game out. They made some shots at the end of the first half that gave them some life again.”
Senior guard Anthony Farmer scored 12 points for the Scarlet Knights, who have lost eight straight against ranked opponents since a 77-64 win at then-No. 13 Pittsburgh last January.
The Cardinals won both games over Rutgers last season by an average of 26.0 points to take a 6-1 lead in the all-time series.