Fashionably Late: Surging Cardinals Finally Back in Top 25

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Rick Pitino's suits aren't the only things making statements these days.

While the all-white linen number the Louisville coach wore during the first half of Saturday's upset of then sixth-rankied Georgetown created the kind of stir usually reserved for the red carpet at the Oscars, Pitino was just as impressed with the play of his surging team.

Wins over the Hoyas and Marquette last week propelled Louisville (18-6, 8-3 Big East) back into the Top 25 for the first time in two months. While No. 23 is still a far cry from the seemingly comfy spot in the Top 10 they occupied in November, the Cardinals are finally starting to deliver on their preseason promise.

The team that travels to Chicago on Tuesday to take on DePaul (10-13, 5-6) is hardly the injury and confidence ravaged squad that struggled through an unimpressive nonconference schedule.

The one that held Georgetown to 20 second-half points as it roared back from a 10-point deficit on Saturday looked an awful lot like the one that came within an Edgar Sosa 3-pointer of making it to the NCAA tournament's round of 16 last year.

"This has been the best month, the best few weeks weve had," Pitino said.

That doesn't mean he's ready to crown the Cardinals ready to make a run at the Final Four. As topsy-turvy as the season has been, he knows it's way too early to say Louisville's troubles this season are a thing of the past.

"I feel like I've coached 3 or 4 different University of Louisvilles this year," Pitino said.

In a way he has. There was the talented upbeat team that began the year ranked No. 6. That team stayed around for about two games, or about as long as it took for senior center David Padgett to go down with a fractured knee.

Then came weeks of searching while Padgett and forward Juan Palacios -- who missed nine games with a knee injury -- sat on the bench wearing nicely tailored suits. The Cardinals lost games to Dayton, BYU and Purdue during a five-game span in the fall as the team's sophomores struggled to carry the load.

"It was very humbling for the whole team," said guard Jerry Smith. "It made everybody work hard to get back where we belong."

Padgett's high tolerance for pain helped him come back on New Year's Day, but it only led to about three weeks of inconsistent play as the Cardinals searched for cohesion.

They've found it the last month, winning five of their last six by an average of nearly 18 points a game as their defense has consistently flustered opponents. The Cardinals are seventh in the country in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to make just 37.7 percent of their shots from the floor.

"We probably have played good defense all year long, and I think one of the reasons is because we dont let the opposition get used to one defense, thats the key with us," Pitino said. "We change so often that we can keep them off guard a little bit and not get used to it."

The Cardinals took control against the Hoyas during an eight-minute stretch in the second half in which the Hoyas missed five straight shots and turned it over three times.

It was the kind of performance the Cardinals will need to repeat consistently over the next month if they wants the high-seeding in the NCAA tournament Pitino said they'll need to make it out of the first weekend. Games against Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and a trip to Georgetown remain on the schedule.

It's a difficult road, but the despair of two months ago has been replaced with optimism as bright as Pitino's stunning sartorial display against the Hoyas.

The all-white suit only lasted a half, or until Pitino noticed his blue "filters" (read: underwear) were in danger of seeping through his sweat-soaked slacks. During the half he switched to a more traditional black suit, doing it so quickly Smith joked his coach looked like "Superman."

Maybe not, but it was a fitting moment for the leader of a team that finally appears to have the look of a contender.

"Im happy with the way our guys are playing," Pitino said. "That's the most important thing."

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