Louisville guard Jerry Smith can still hear the cheers from the raucous Georgetown locker room after the Hoyas beat the Cardinals in the regular season finale last spring, a victory that gave Georgetown the Big East title.
Smith and his teammates sat - trapped seemingly - for 20 or 30 minutes before quietly making their way to the team bus, wondering how they let their chance at winning the nation’s toughest conference slip away.
“It was a tough moment,” Smith said. “I don’t want to feel that again.”
If No. 6 Louisville (24-5, 15-2 Big East) can find a way to hold off surging West Virginia (21-9, 10-7) on Saturday night, Smith won’t have to.
In the wake of No. 3 Pittsburgh’s win over top-ranked Connecticut, the Cardinals can claim the conference title with a win. Louisville planned to watch the UConn-Pitt game together hours before taking on the Mountaineers, though coach Rick Pitino wasn’t concerned about how the outcome of that game will affect his team’s play.
“Whatever shakes down, we’ve had a great regular season, that’s the way we look at it,” Pitino said.
It’s a season that looked on the verge of collapse two months ago when the Cardinals - ranked No. 3 in the preseason - dropped nonconference games to Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV.
That’s when the “microwave society,” a pet name Pitino gives to fans and pundits who make snap judgments based on one game, swept in.
Suddenly, highly touted freshman center Samardo Samuels appeared in over his head. Junior forward Earl Clark looked more intent on improving his NBA Draft stock than improving his team. Do-everything senior co-captain Terrence Williams couldn’t get a handle on his jumper or his ego.
Pitino, however, never panicked. That’s just not him. Instead the Cardinals went back to basics. Rather than go bug-eyed looking at a daunting Big East schedule, Pitino instead focused on the next game and waited for his team to mature.
Slowly, it did. Sophomore Preston Knowles became a spark plug off the bench. Freshman Terrence Jennings quit pouting and started playing. Clark became an all-around force while Williams turned into a point forward, doing whatever was necessary during a given game.
“I think our parts just caught up to the whole,” he said.
Not every member of his family, though, was convinced the Cardinals could get their act together.
Chris Pitino, the second of Pitino’s five children, texted senior associate Big East commissioner John Marinatto after the UNLV loss and said “boy, we’re nowhere near as good as we were last year.”
Turns out, the Cardinals might be even better.
Though Louisville doesn’t have a dominant player, the way the Cardinals play they don’t really need one. While some teams like North Carolina like to dictate the pace and make the opposition try to match them basket for basket, Louisville doesn’t seem to be concerned about style.
Fast. Slow. Big. Small. The Cardinals have found all kind of ways to win. They grinded out a rugged 62-58 win over injury ravaged Marquette on Sunday, then followed it up sprinting past Seton Hall 95-78 three days later.
Sometimes, the styles can change in a given game. Louisville beat West Virginia 69-63 on Jan. 31 by racing to a 20-point halftime lead then digging in when the Mountaineers made a late run. Though West Virginia coach Bob Huggins will throw a variety of defenses at the Cardinals, Pitino knows it’s nothing his team hasn’t seen before.
“You’re prepared for everything when you go in this league,” Pitino said.
Louisville will have to be if it wants to win it’s first Big East title.
For seniors like Andre McGee, who suffered through the team’s disastrous 6-10 debut in the Big East after moving over from Conference USA three years ago, a chance to share the league title isn’t something to be taken lightly or for granted.
“We remember those days when we were really getting beat up in the conference,” McGee said. “Now to be in the hunt last year and this year to win a championship, this is our last chance. We want to really try and do that.”