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January 15, 2013
With its 73-58 victory at Connecticut Monday night, the University of Louisville's newly acquired and unique No. 1 ranking in both men's college basketball polls is safe at least until this weekend, but the surging Cardinals (16-1, 4-0) will face a stern challenge holding onto their lofty perch.
Sixth-ranked Syracuse, also 16-1 and 4-0, will try to make UofL's stay at No. 1 shortlived when the teams collide for the sole lead in the Big East Conference at 4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) In the KFC Yum! Center.
This is the earliest in the season that Louisville ever has ascended to the top spot and only the second time the Cards have occupied that coveted position in their history. UofL moved to No. 1 in the last poll of the 2009 season and also earned the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament before being eliminated in the Elite Eight by Michigan State.
Coach Rick Pitino's message to his players about the ranking was this: "I told them, 'Look guys, Louisville never been No. 1, one of the richest traditions in college basketball, never number one except at the end of the season after we won the Big East.' So I said, 'Why don't you hold onto it for a while. Take great pride in the schedule you've played and hang around No. 1, because it's not about here and now, it's about reaching the level of excellence that you're No. 1, so fight to keep it.'"
However, as much as he would like to think differently, Pitino -- whose team has won 11 in a row -- suspects that Louisville won't be the last team to be No. 1 this season.
"I think the top teams will play musical chairs for No. 1 for the next two months, and it will be really significant at the end of the year," Pitino said. "We played a tough non-conference schedule, and I'm really happy the way our guys have battled through injuries. We'll try to hold the musical top as long as we can."
Asked about the possibility of becoming No. 1 after their 64-38 rout of South Florida Saturday afternoon, the Cards predictably said they would rather be No. 1 at the end of the season, but disagreed somewhat on the impact of the ranking.
"Number one at this time of the year just gives you a bigger target on your back and more opportunities fror the (home crowd during an away game) to storm the court against you," guard Peyton Siva said. "It puts so much pressure on you."
But forward Chane Behanan said the Cards should thrive on that pressure.
"To me, one is just a number," Behanan said. "That's one thing we don't pay attention to is ranking. But if there's pressure, that's a good thing because it should make us work even harder to get better."
And Russ Smith didn't want to talk about it after the win over UConn (12-4, 2-2) in Hartford.
"I don't even want to go on that topic," Smith said. "As long as we keep stacking up these wins, that's all that matters."