With a double-bye in the Big East tournament wrapped up and locked into the No. 3 seed, Louisville has little to play for in Saturday afternoon’s regular-season finale.
West Virginia, on the other hand, shouldn’t have any trouble finding motivation.
A loss at the WVU Coliseum could cost the Mountaineers a bye next week at Madison Square Garden, and they’ll also be out for revenge after a second-half collapse against the 11th-ranked Cardinals in late January.
Louisville (23-7, 12-5) clinched one of the conference’s four double-byes with an 87-60 rout of visiting Providence on Wednesday, and found out Thursday it will be the third seed after St. John’s lost at Seton Hall.
While coach Rick Pitino’s team overachieved after being picked to finish eighth in the Big East, he’s far from satisfied.
“Coach P will tell you you’re not worth anything, you haven’t accomplished anything yet,” sophomore point guard Peyton Siva said. “He has no problem reminding you where you were projected to be.”
Had Siva not been able to split a pair of West Virginia defenders Jan. 26, the Cardinals might be fighting the Mountaineers (19-10, 10-7) for that extra day of rest next week in New York. Siva’s acrobatic layup with 4.5 seconds left that day gave Louisville a 55-54 victory after it battled back from 11 down at halftime.
Now, West Virginia has quite a bit riding on Saturday’s rematch, while the Cardinals are locked into playing the last quarterfinal game Thursday night at MSG.
If the Mountaineers can beat Louisville for just the second time in their last seven meetings, they’ll avoid playing in the first round of the conference tournament Tuesday. They’d likely earn the No. 6 seed, which, with a win in Wednesday’s second round, would earn them a quarterfinal meeting with Louisville in a battle of the Big East tourney’s past two champions.
Should West Virginia lose, it could fall out of the top eight entirely, though that would require Villanova beating Pittsburgh and Marquette winning at Seton Hall. That scenario would leave the Mountaineers needing to win five games in five days to defend their title.
The Mountaineers come in on a high note as they’ve recovered from losing four of six from Feb. 5-24. They used a 46-31 rebounding edge to overwhelm Rutgers 65-54 on the road Sunday, then returned home to knock off No. 16 Connecticut 65-56 on Wednesday behind 18 points from Joe Mazzulla.
“It was a real big win Sunday,” Mazzulla said. “But I think this was a little bit bigger.”
Mazzulla will be one of five players honored prior to Saturday’s Senior Day, and he’ll likely be anxious to face the Cardinals again. He filled in for injured starter Casey Mitchell in the January visit to Louisville and set a then-career high with 18 points on 8 of 12 shooting.
Mazzulla, who’s been part of 103 victories in Morgantown - second in school history behind Da’Sean Butler - has started every game since.
A win Saturday would give coach Bob Huggins his 100th since arriving at his alma mater, a milestone he’ll have a better shot achieving if West Virginia can shut down Louisville leading scorer Preston Knowles.
That hasn’t been too difficult in the past. Knowles shot 3 of 16 in the first meeting and has averaged 3.6 points while shooting 22.2 percent in five career meetings - his worst numbers against any Big East opponent.