Surging Cards Wary of Speedy Golden Eagles

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Louisville forward Terrence Williams was sitting in the locker room following a decisive win over West Virginia last week when somebody asked him what the deal was with his ear-to-ear grin.

Williams' line on the night -- three points, five rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals -- wasn't exactly overwhelming. Yet the junior got over the whole numbers thing long ago.

Call it a byproduct of experience. If there's anything he's learned during his two-plus years with the Cardinals, it's that the only number that matters is the one on the scoreboard at the end of the game.

So while some of his younger teammates -- namely guard Edgar Sosa and center Derrick Caracter -- let their production determine their effort during an injury-ravaged and inconsistent first six weeks of the season, Williams kept reminding them what was important.

"Everybody has to have one heartbeat, and our heartbeat is to win," Williams said Wednesday. "If it is not a big win, a blowout, if it is by one point at the buzzer from halfcourt, we'll take it. We just want wins."

Williams then paused ever so briefly, fiddled with the drawstring on his hooded sweatshirt and let out a slightly exaggerated sigh.

"Wins keep everybody happy around here, trust me," he said as reporters laughed.

None happier, of course, than coach Rick Pitino. Though he knows his team has plenty of work to do if it wants to deliver on its potential, there's a certain ruggedness he sees in the Cardinals (12-4, 2-1 Big East) as they prepare to host No. 13 Marquette (13-2, 3-1) on Thursday night that he didn't see a month ago.

"I think we're a tough team," Pitino said. "But the jury is still out on how good we'll be because we just got healthy two weeks ago."

With seniors David Padgett and Juan Palacios back from knee injury, Louisville has played with the kind of defensive intensity that gives Pitino room for optimism. Save for a slip-up against much-improved Cincinnati on New Year's Day, the Cardinals have been gritty if not glamorous in winning seven of eight.

"You're not always going to get a good game every single night," Pitino said. "The important thing is to play good enough defense to come away with a victory."

It won't be easy against the Golden Eagles in a rivalry that blossomed earlier this decade when both teams were in Conference USA and has only grown more heated now that both have moved into the Big East.

Pitino and Marquette coach Tom Crean downplay the rivalry on a personal level -- Pitino says simply the two are "cordial" to each other when they cross paths -- and instead say the intensity comes from playing traditionally close games. Fourteen of the last 22 meetings have been decided by five points or less or in overtime. Marquette handled Louisville 74-65 at Freedom Hall last year, then the Cardinals stunned the Golden Eaqles 61-59 on a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Jerry Smith a month later in Milwaukee.

It was a confidence-building win that helped propel the Cardinals to the NCAA tournament. Louisville likely needs another one on Thursday to bolster a solid if unremarkable resume.

"You want to keep winning in this league," Williams said. "You don't want to fall with losses in the L column and fall to the bottom. You want to just keep getting wins."

To do it the Cardinals will have to find a way to deal with Marquette's guard-heavy rotation that includes all-everything junior Dominic James. As difficult as the Golden Eagles are to defend -- four players are averaging at least 10.5 points per game -- they present an even bigger challenge at the other end of the floor. Marquette leads the Big East with 10.47 steals per game, and both James and Jerel McNeal are in the top five in the conference in steals.

"If you put the basketball on the floor, they go after it," Pitino said. "The thing about steals is they lead to easy baskets. ... They're fundamental at a lot of different things, and they do a lot of good things that pose problems for teams."

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