While its hopes of claiming a share of the regular-season Big East championship remain slim, Louisville is closing in on earning a double-bye in the conference tournament for the second time in three seasons.
Looking to avenge January’s loss to Providence, the No. 11 Cardinals will attempt to go undefeated at home in conference play for the first time since joining the Big East in 2005 when the teams meet Wednesday night.
Louisville (22-7, 11-5), which won the regular-season conference championship in 2008-09 en route to earning a double-bye and winning the Big East tournament title, is tied with No. 15 St. Johns for third place.
The Cardinals and Red Storm sit 1 1/2 games back of No. 8 Notre Dame and two behind No. 4 Pittsburgh with two games to play. Louisville defeated the Panthers 62-59 in overtime Sunday, improving to 8-0 in conference play at home.
The Irish have one game remaining while Pitt has two.
“I’d rather play,” coach Rick Pitino said of earning a double-bye. “To tell you the truth, I think we’d rather play because of all the time we’ve missed, playing helps us.
“Certainly, getting a double-bye with what we thought before the season is a tremendous accomplishment for the guys. But, we would rather play.”
Junior guard Kyle Kuric, who scored five of his 12 points in overtime, put Louisville up five with less than one second remaining and seemed to have clinched the game before a male cheerleader grabbed the ball and tossed it in the air, resulting in a delay of game technical foul. The Panthers made their two free throws but couldn’t get off a potentially game-tying heave.
Louisville will be short-handed Wednesday after sophomore forward Rakeem Buckles tore his right ACL on Sunday. Guard Russ Smith will also miss the game with a concussion.
Preston Knowles was held to eight points on 3-of-12 shooting versus Pittsburgh and is averaging 9.3 points - 5.0 less than his team-leading mark - on 27.1 percent shooting in his last four games.
Despite his recent struggles, the senior guard earned high praise from his coach.
“I think there’s a lot of moments with Preston,” Pitino said. “Its been a joy to coach him between the lines. He gives you everything he has all the time. He’s been one of the best captains I’ve had because he’s selfless (and) cares about the team winning.”
Knowles was held to a season-low two points on 1-of-8 shooting in a 72-67 loss Jan. 22 at Providence, and he will look to bounce back in front of the home crowd on senior night.
The Cardinals had won nine straight against the Friars before Marshon Brooks, who ranks second in the country with 25.1 points per game, scored 27.
“Obviously we’re playing a team that we lost to earlier in the year,” Pitino said. “We were able to contain Marshon Brooks for a half and then in the second half he really hurt us. We’ve gotta do better things and let our players understand that playing at home on senior night does not gain a victory, it’s your defense and your offense.”
Providence (14-15, 3-13) has lost 15 straight on the road dating to last season and hasn’t beaten a Top 25 opponent as the visiting team since defeating then-No. 4 Connecticut 66-56 on Jan. 24, 2004.
The Friars fell 86-62 to Marquette on Sunday for their sixth straight loss as Brooks followed a 52-point performance against Notre Dame with 17.