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March 4, 2014

Cards still working to beef up NCAA resume

Although it will be no consolation to University of Louisville fans, players and coaches, the then-No. 7/4 Cardinals (24-5) had plenty of company over the weekend with their 72-66 loss at then-No. 21/22 Memphis.

A wild week capped by an even wilder weekend resulted in a bloodbath for Top-25 teams and few were spared. Only a handful of teams in the AP rankings won on the road -- No. 19 North Carolina (at Virginia Tech); No. 14 Wisconsin (at Penn State); No. 13 San Diego State (at Fresno State); and No. 25 New Mexico (at Nevada-Reno). Upset Thursday was followed by Upset Saturday.

In all, 13 Top-25 teams fell in a four-day span. Furthermore, over the last two weeks, there have been 26 losses by Top-25 teams, including 11 defeats by the top 11. And there will undoubtedly be more surprises this week during the final days of the regular season. Think the conference and NCAA tournaments won't be fun and unpredictable?

A close loss to a Top-25 team on the road usually isn't too damaging. But in Louisville's case, the Cards need all the quality wins they can get in order to move up in the seeding pecking order due to their modest RPI and low strength of schedule (SOS). Furthermore, UofL is 1-5 against teams which were ranked in the Top 25 when it played them.

After the defeat at Memphis, which saw them surrender an eight-point lead in the last four minutes, the Cards' RPI dropped two spots to No. 29 in the NCAA ratings. Their SOS is 107, one of the lowest among Top-25 teams (Wichita State is 111, San Diego State 140).

CBSsports.com bracketologist Jerry Palm put it this way: "The AAC (American Athletic Conference) remains the hardest league to seed. The big gap between the top five and the bottom five has caused some schedule anomalies. Louisville is particularly tough because they have played a schedule of extremes. They are just 5-5 against the top 100 of the RPI, which doesn't translate to a high seed, but (poll) voters love them. Most of their schedule is against teams ranked 150 and below. The Cards' overall SOS is comparable to Wichita State, but nobody complains about Louisville's schedule."

UofL's poll ranking is irrelevant because that's not one of the factors the NCAA selection committee takes into consideration when seeding, instead relying heavily on RPI, SOS and significant road victories (the Cards have two of those, at UConn and at Cincinnati).

Palm dropped UofL one slot this week to a No. 6 seed, while ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi kept it at No. 5.

While the Cards blew a golden opportunity to add to their NCAA resume', several chances still remain. Their last two games will be against ranked teams, starting with No. 18 SMU (23-6) Wednesday night in Dallas. UofL will host No. 19 Connecticut in the regular season finale Saturday afternoon and could face two more Top-25 teams in the AAC Tournament at the FedExForum in Memphis next week.

UofL coach Rick Pitino called the loss to Memphis "extremely disappointing" but vowed not to dwell on it. While the beard ploy is over, Pitino can be counted on to come up with more positive motivation for his team as it tries to regain some of the momentum it had built with a seven-game winning streak and a perfect February.

Pitino was most upset that his players lost their poise after they gained a 65-57 lead with 4:46 remaining and appeared to be in control. He felt they celebrated too early.
From that point on, UofL missed eight straight shots, two bonus free throws, committed two turnovers and failed to get the ball to Montrezl Harrell, who had been nearly unstoppable with 25 points but didn't have a field-goal attempt down the stretch as the game slipped away.

"I knew they weren't focused to put the game away, " Pitino said. "I knew we were in trouble when we went up (eight) and our guys acted like junior high kids."

It will take more than a junior high effort to get back on the winning track at SMU, which owns a 15-0 record in Moody Coliseum, including a 76-55 rout of Cincinnati. The Mustangs have won three in a row and seven of their last eight.

SMU is coming off a 70-55 homecourt win over Central Florida Saturday that left coach Larry Brown wanting to see a much better performance against Louisville, even though the Mustangs shot 48.9 percent and held UCF to 37.5, including 4-of-19 from 3-point range.

"I didn't like the way we played," Brown said. "We didn't play like a ranked team. This ranking doesn't mean anything to me. I'm proud that we're Top 25 in a lot of people's eyes, but we've got a lot of things ahead of us and a lot of great opportunities. We've got to play a lot better than we did today."

Brown also wants to see more support from SMU's students when the Cards come to town for the sold-out showdown.

"The students, I didn't see all our students," Brown said. "That kind of bugged me a little bit. Is there a beach around here? I want people to dread coming in here. We're not going to be able to hang with Louisville unless we have a better crowd. The one thing I know is Louisville won't be bothered by it. Big programs relish those kinds of opportunities."

UofL defeated SMU 71-63 in the KFC Yum! Center on Jan. 12, with Luke Hancock and Russ Smith each scoring 23 points.

With a win at Memphis, UofL could have taken over sole possession of first place in the AAC because Cincinnati had lost to UConn minutes before tipoff. But now the Bearcats and Cards are tied for the lead at 13-3, and SMU (12-4) still has an outside shot at the title. Memphis and UConn, both 11-5, are still in mathematical contention.

Cincinnati hosts Memphis Thursday, then finishes at Rutgers, while SMU winds up at Memphis on Saturday.

FIND A HOME, RICK -- My nomination for cleverest harassment remark by a fan to a coach is this gem from a Memphis fan behind the UofL bench who told Pitino his beard made him look like a "homeless werewolf." Not nice, but definitely clever.

At least now that a loss has forced Pitino and his players to shave, he won't have to hear any similar comments from SMU fans Wednesday night.

Louisville NEWS


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