LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—Louisville coach Rick Pitino has seen hundreds of games in Madison Square Garden during his 35 years in coaching.
There’s little doubt which one makes the basketball purist in him cringe the most: Cincinnati’s bruising 69-66 victory over the Cardinals in last year’s Big East tournament.
Pitino called it “the ugliest game” ever played at the arena.
“They shot poorly and we gave up 28 offensive rebounds,” Pitino said with a grimace.
Play the game on either program’s home gym and it would fit right in, however. That’s the way it has always been between the longtime rivals.
Players change, coaches change, conference affiliations change, but the ferocity of their annual showdowns does not.
Even as Louisville has soared and the Bearcats struggled since the two teams joined the Big East in 2005—Louisville is 67-31 in conference play while the Bearcats are just 39-59—the Cardinals (19-6, 8-4 Big East) hold just a 4-3 lead against Cincinnati (19-6, 6-6) heading into Wednesday’s pivotal game.
Though allowing the game has lost a bit of its luster from the days when the Cardinals and Bearcats were battling for control of Conference USA and the Metro Conference before that, the intensity hasn’t waned a bit.
“They play great defense, they’re very physical,” Pitino said. “I think the talent on each side matches up very well against each other.”
Pitino expects another tight game this time, then again, why expect anything else from the Cardinals at this point in the season. Eight of Louisville’s last nine games have been decided by five points or less or in overtime.
Remarkably, Louisville is 5-3 in those games despite being labeled a “finesse” team by its coach. Pitino credited his team’s mental toughness and the selfless leadership of senior captain Preston Knowles for keeping the Cardinals grounded and gritty.
Knowles’ effect on his younger teammates hasn’t been lost on Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, who spent two years as an assistant at Louisville under Pitino a decade ago.
“Their leader doesn’t care about anything but winning,” Cronin said. “Their leader doesn’t let their guys run to the locker room to run and check the box score.”
It hasn’t been quite as smooth a ride for the Bearcats, who have dropped three of four while Cronin deals with enigmatic junior forward Yancy Gates. Cronin suspended Gates for violating team rules earlier this month, and his playing time has significantly decreased since he returned to the lineup.
Gates played just 13 minutes in a 59-57 loss to St. John’s on Sunday, including all of one minute in the second half. While he’ll be available against the Cardinals, Cronin played coy when asked how much action Gates will see.
“I’m playing the guy that gives us the best chance to win,” he said. “He really is struggling guarding their guys.”
The Bearcats could certainly use Gates’ physical presence against the Cardinals, who face a significant size disadvantage at four positions yet have remained competitive in the Big East behind a frenetic press and the ability to deliver in the clutch.
It’s a season Pitino calls one of the most enjoyable of his career, even though he allows he wouldn’t be “shocked” if his team dropped its last six games.
That mindset doesn’t bother the Cardinals, who have been proving the naysayers wrong all year.
“Nobody expected us to do anything this year,” said sophomore guard Chris Smith. “It’s why we play so well together, chip on our shoulder for every win.”
It’s a chip the Bearcats will try to knock off in hopes of making the NCAAs for the first time in Cronin’s five-year tenure. Cincinnati has kept its tournament hopes afloat by beating the teams in the bottom half of the Big East. A win over one of the conference leaders would add a significant bullet point on its tournament resume.
Not that Cronin wants to look that far ahead.
Cincinnati has been in this position each of the past two years. Given an opportunity to make a case, the Bearcats have faltered instead. Cincinnati went 1-5 over its last six regular season games last winter and 2-4 over the same stretch in 2009.
Cronin remains optimistic the cracks aren’t starting to show despite his team’s recent stumble.
“The hardest thing for me is to makes sure I keep my guys focused and positive,” he said. “They’ve got to keep believeing and they’ve got to keep fighting. That’s the biggest challenge in this conference.”