Villanova-Louisville Preview

The Associated Press

Louisville stumbled into last season's Big East tournament, but it finished on top for the second time and rode that all the way to the Final Four.

The road back starts at Madison Square Garden.

The fourth-ranked Cardinals go for an eighth consecutive victory in Thursday night's tournament quarterfinals against Villanova.

Loser of four of six heading into the 2012 league tournament, seventh-seeded Louisville defeated Seton Hall, Marquette, Notre Dame and Cincinnati en route to its second Big East tournament title, and first since 2009. The Cardinals' surge continued all the way to a national semifinal defeat to eventual national champion Kentucky.

Louisville lost three straight - including a 73-64 defeat at Villanova on Jan. 22 - following a 16-1 start, but the team finished on a 10-1 run to tie Georgetown and Marquette for the regular-season Big East title. It was the Cardinals' second regular-season conference crown (2008-09) since joining the league in 2005.

Coach Rick Pitino doesn't want his players to get overconfident as they're undefeated since a 104-101 five-overtime loss at then-No. 25 Notre Dame on Feb. 9, but even he admits this is one of his strongest teams.

"Against Villanova we did miss some free throws (12 of 24). But we really did not play a bad game this year," Pitino said after the regular-season finale, Saturday's 73-57 victory over the 24th-ranked Fighting Irish. "This is one of the more consistent teams I have coached. We are very excited to and are doing some really good things and now we have to go to New York and try to win a very important tournament because it is the last year for the Big East."

The Wildcats (20-12) will be part of the Catholic 7 that will form a new Big East starting this summer, but they still want to make noise at MSG after defeating St. John's 66-53 in Wednesday's tournament opener. This came on the heels of a 67-57 victory over then-No. 5 Georgetown on Feb. 6.

"I think we have a pretty good resume now," said coach Jay Wright, whose team finished 13-19 last season and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.

The Wildcats are 4-2 against ranked opponents, including 3-0 against Top 5 teams. Villanova's victory over then-fifth-ranked Louisville in January was its third in the last four in this series.

Wright, though, knows his squad can't afford another 17-turnover game like Wednesday as the Wildcats get set to face a Cardinals team ranked among the nation's best with 10.7 steals per game

"We're going to have to take care of the ball," he said.

Villanova's guards could also have their hands full with Louisville's backcourt of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. Siva, last season's Big East tournament MVP, had 15 points and a career-best 13 assists in the previous meeting with the Wildcats.

Smith scored eight points on 2-of-13 shooting in that contest, but the Brooklyn native was named first-team All-Big East after leading the team in scoring (17.9 ppg) and ranking third in the conference with 2.1 steals per game.

Louisville junior center Gorgui Dieng, also a first-team pick, is one of two Big East players (Notre Dame's Jack Cooley) averaging a double-double (10.3 points, 10.1 rebounds) and is blocking 2.6 shots per game.

Dieng, the Big East defensive player of the year, finished with 10 points, nine boards, two blocks and two steals on Jan. 22.

Guard Ryan Arcidiacono, a league all-rookie selection, led the Wildcats with 15 points in that game, while Mouphtaou Yarou, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston each chipped in with 11.

The Wildcats, whose lone Big East tournament title was in 1995, haven't won two games in this event since advancing to the semifinals in 2004.

The winner faces Notre Dame or Marquette, the third seed, in Friday's second semifinal.