Last season, Louisville made an impressive run through the rugged Big East to win the conference’s regular-season title. Syracuse might have the team do the same in 2009-10.
Trying for a 12th straight victory to remain atop the league standings, the second-ranked Orange must avoid a fifth consecutive loss to the visiting Cardinals on Sunday.
On its way to a 16-2 conference record last season, Louisville won 67-57 at Syracuse and also beat the Orange 76-66 in the Big East tournament championship game to nail down a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.
One year later, it’s Syracuse (24-1, 11-1) with its sights set on winning the school’s first conference title since the Big East went back to one division in 2003-04, and a possible No. 1 seed next month.
“Right now we’re preparing ourselves for March, trying to get ready for the tournament,” junior Rick Jackson said. “We want to be great in the tournament.”
The Orange have been close to great during the regular season. A victory would move Syracuse one-half game ahead of No. 4 Villanova, which moved into a tie for first place after beating Providence on Saturday.
Though Syracuse hasn’t beaten Louisville since Feb. 18, 2006, the Cardinals (15-9, 6-5) have lost their last four conference road games, including 74-55 to lowly St. John’s on Thursday. Still, Syracuse players know better than to take anything for granted.
“We know everyone is trying to give us their best shot,” center Arinze Onuaku said. “We know we have to play hard and play smart.”
The Orange managed to do both for the most part in a 72-67 home win over struggling Connecticut on Wednesday.
A 52.7 percent shooting team, Syracuse won despite being held to 42.6 percent and committing 20 turnovers. The Orange held UConn to 38.8 percent shooting for the game and outrebounded the Huskies 12-5 on the offensive glass during one stretch of the second half.
“We’re playing really well right now,” said Jackson, who had a team-leading 15 points. “We need to work on a few more things, like all teams do.”
Leading scorer and Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson (16.1 ppg) scored 13 points Wednesday after combining for the same amount in his previous two games.
Louisville’s Samardo Samuels had 15 points against the Orange in last season’s Big East tournament title game. Averaging a team-leading 15.8 points, the 6-foot-9 sophomore finished with 18 on Thursday when the Cardinals shot 41.7 percent and scored their fewest points of the season.
“It was our worst game of the season,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, whose team is allowing 76.6 points per game while going 1-4 on the road in league play.
“When someone speaks an untruth it’s a bit of a distraction,” said Pitino, whose team is 0-3 against Top 25 opponents. “There is no truth to it. … I’ve been at Louisville for nine years and I want to coach till I’m 65 and I hope it’s at Louisville and I hope they’ll have me. It’s a distraction, a nuisance.”
These teams will conclude the regular season at Louisville on March 6.