While he wants to relieve his team of the burden of living up to last season's championship squad, Louisville coach Rick Pitino hopes to keep relying on two key players from that title run.
Luke Hancock and Russ Smith will try to provide some more high-scoring performances while helping the 18th-ranked Cardinals overcome the absence of point guard Chris Jones against visiting Houston on Thursday night.
Louisville (14-3, 3-1 American Athletic Conference) has dealt with some of the usual pressure that comes from being defending national champions and hasn't fared well in matchups with other high-profile teams. The Cardinals have suffered all three of their losses to ranked opponents and fell 73-67 to then-No. 24 Memphis last Thursday in the opener to a three-game homestand.
"I told them aspire to be as good as them in March. Don't try and be that team now," Pitino said. "We're going to lose some games obviously. We're not going have that record we had last year (35-5). It's going be OK as long as we keep getting better and, come March, we will be a decent basketball team."
Pitino's team bounced back with a 71-63 win over SMU on Sunday as Hancock scored a career-high 23 points and Smith matched that output.
Hancock was the 2013 Final Four's most outstanding player after scoring at least 20 points in both games, but he hadn't reached that mark this season until doing so in the past two games. He's averaging 18.5 points in the last four after scoring 7.8 per contest in his first 12.
"I'm starting to feel better on the court, getting in a rhythm," Hancock said. "It takes a lot to get into the flow of the game, to get your looks and find teammates and get them the ball."
Smith, scoring a team-best 18.1 points per game, has averaged 22.0 in the past four contests and made 12 of 21 from 3-point range.
With help from their senior guard, the Cardinals won their 23rd consecutive home game against an unranked opponent, and they'll try to continue that streak when they face the Cougars (10-6, 2-1). The Cardinals, though, won't have Jones available because of an injured oblique muscle.
Pitino said the junior starter hurt himself while passing to teammate Terry Rozier in the first half Sunday. Jones is averaging 11.3 points but scored a combined 15 in the past four games.
Rozier is expected to start in place of Jones, who might need "a few days or a few weeks" to get better, and he'll try to help Louisville avoid becoming Houston's latest upset victim.
The Cougars have won four of their last six games against ranked teams and won their only one this season, 75-71 over then-No. 17 Connecticut on Dec. 31 in their AAC opener. Plus, they nearly overcame a 19-point deficit in the second half of a 61-60 home loss to a Cincinnati team which joined the rankings this week.
Houston has been off since that defeat Jan. 7, when senior guard Brandon Morris matched a career high with 17 points - about 11 above his season average. TaShawn Thomas, the team leader with 17.0 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, matched a season low with 10 points and had nine boards. Thomas scored 23 in the win over UConn.
The Cougars are 0-7 at Louisville but snapped an eight-game overall losing streak in the series with a 70-67 win over the then-No. 17 Cardinals on Jan. 5, 2005.
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