Fifty days ago the question "How do you think this Louisville team will deal with success?" would have been met with a number of sarcastic one-liners. Today the question is a valid one, and will be answered when a Cardinal team coming off the first back-to-back road wins over ranked teams in school history hosts St. John's at 7 p.m.
Louisville, which did not receive any votes in last week's AP Poll but is ranked No. 20 this week, is playing as a ranked team for the first time since Jan. 28 of last year. Cardinal coach Rick Pitino will be the first to point out, however, that his squad was also ranked last season when the Red Storm shocked them in Madison Square Garden 68-56.
"That really doesn't matter to me," Pitino said of the ranking. "But anytime you can beat Pittsburgh and Marquette on the road you're playing good basketball and that's the most important thing. To beat Pittsburgh and Marquette in the same week, especially on the road, speaks volumes."
The key to the resurgence of a Louisville team that was largely written off after a 5-4 start has been tremendous defense.
The Cards are allowing just 62.6 points per game, and held six of their nine opponents in January below that mark. In each of their last three wins, they've held their opponent to under 45 percent from the field.
At 9-4, Louisville is currently in sole possession of third place in the conference, but with three teams sitting just a game behind them, any slip-up from here on out could possibly cost the Cards a first round bye in the Big East Tournament.
"We're shooting to finish second or third in the conference," Pitino said. "It's a little unrealistic for first because with so few games remaining, I don't think those teams are going to get more than one loss, maybe two, depending on what happens with Pitt-Georgetown."
St. John's is in 11th place in the Big East at 6-8, and appears in good shape to make the conference tournament for the first time in three years. The Red Storm own wins over Notre Dame (71-68) and Syracuse (64-60), but they're just 2-6 on the road with their only conference win away from home being a 73-64 triumph over league doormat Cincinnati.
The Johnnies have lost two of their last three games, both on the road, the latest being a 71-66 defeat at Providence on Saturday. In that game the Red Storm shot 40.4 percent from the field and sank a season-best 94 percent of its free throws (15-of-16), but a 5-of-20 mark from 3-point range and a 39-24 deficit on the glass prevented them from stealing the road win.
"The Big East tournament is a huge goal, but there are a lot of things we are trying to achieve," SJU coach Norm Roberts said. "We want to win more games than we did before. We want to improve our abilities on the court, improve our talent level. There are a lot of goals we are trying to get to and this is just one of them."
St. John's Breakdown
The loss of guard Daryll Hill to a knee injury a month ago made a squad already looking for scorers that much more offensively challenged. The Johnnies have nine players that average more than ten minutes, but just six who score more than five points a contest.
Here's a look at their top performers:
Six-foot-ten senior guard Lamont Jordan in St. John's go-to-guy, averaging 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds. He is one of 18 players in St. John's history with more than 1,100 points and 650 rebounds, and one of only six players with 1,100 career points, 650 rebounds and 100 blocked shots.
Jordan leads the Red Storm with 17 career double-doubles, having notched back-to-back double-double efforts recently against Syracuse (Jan. 21: 10 pts, 12 rebs) and Notre Dame (Jan. 23: 23 pts, 12 rebs). The preseason All-Big East performer averaged 15.5 ppg and 7.5 rpg in games against Rutgers (Feb. 15) and Providence (Feb. 17) last week, and made 91.7 percent of his free throws, to earn his second BIG EAST honor roll mention of the season.
He scored a career-high 36 points in a six-point win over Columbia on Dec. 23, and pulled down a season-high 13 boards in a one-point win over Boston U. five days later.
ANTHONY MASON JR.
The 6-7 son of the former NBA player by the same name is having a solid sophomore season, averaging 11.2 points and 5.7 rebounds a game. His numbers have actually been better on the road as he is averaging 13.9 points and 7.4 boards when the Johnnies are wearing their red uniforms.
Mason loves to get to the basket and was extremely effective in games against Seton Hall (22 points) and Providence (19 points) when he was able to get to the rim consistently.
He dislocated a finger during the first half of the Cincinnati game on Feb. 4, but it hasn't seem to hamper him all that much as he's averaging 14 point and five boards while shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from long range since that game.
Patterson, a 6-4 Junior College transfer, has been the Storm's most consistent outside shooter, ranking sixth among all Big East players with 68 3-pointers made. He averages 2.5 made threes per contest and has made at least one in 23 of 27 games. Of his 101 made field goals on the season, 68 of them are three-pointers (67.3 percent).
For the season Patterson is averageing over 11 ppg., but his production has dwindled as the year's gone on, and he was held scoreless in St. John's' loss to Providence on Saturday.
The 6-1 junior guard is the captain of the team, and is averaging 7.7 points, 5.1 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game, including 9.6 points and 5.2 assists in the last 10 games while shooting .463 from the field and .511 from 3-point range.
Lawrence is one of the best passers in the conference, ranking second in the Big East at 5.1 assists per game. He's dished out seven or more assists ten times this season. He's also probably the Johnnies' best man-to-man defender, averaging nearly two steals per contest.
Lawrence scored 18 points in the Red Storm's win over Louisville a year ago, including the team's first 12.
Calhoun is probably the most athletic player on Norm Roberts' squad. The 6-8 freshman can score inside and outside, and has seen his production increase drastically since he was inserted into the starting lineup on Feb. 4. Since that time he has averaged 10.2 ppg and 5.4 rebounds, much higher than his season averages of 5.3 and 3.7 respectively.
Spears, a 6-10 senior center, is averaging just 4.1 points and 2.7 rebounds, but he's shooting 57% over the last 11 games, and scored 11 points and pulled down seven boards in a Jan. 13 loss to Uconn.
Notable and Quotable
"We have to step up and not let up. That's something now that's very significant for us. We can't embrace anything we've accomplished, we have to keep improving. We still have a lot to accomplish."
"I said three weeks ago there was a lot of basketball to be played. I kept saying I was bullish on this basketball team. I never wavered from that. You're not counted out, you're not counted in. The reason we're here today is we never believed we were out, and the reason I think they'll keep playing well is that we don't think we're in."
"We're getting better and we're peaking at the right time. You always want to play your best basketball in February and March, and we are playing our best basketball."
"He (Pitino) is a Hall of Famer. He is a great coach and a guy that has done a ton in New York City. He is well respected and his teams always play hard and disciplined. He's a winner."
"The lesson I wanted not only him [Avery Patterson] to get, but our whole team to get, is that I want your response to always be the response we want. All our guys understand that. The other thing I really wanted them to understand is that it's the tough time of the year and it's a time of the year they are not used to being involved in. We're trying to get to the BIG EAST Tournament and postseason play. Every play counts. Every possession counts. You have to do the little things to be successful and we try to point that out to all of our guys."
"It's just started for us. I think people like David (Padgett), T-Will (Terrence Williams) and myself have been underrated all year. Now we're getting a little bit of respect, but we're not getting as much as we deserve. I think those two games (Marquette and Pitt) opened doors for guys who deserve respect around the whole nation. People are starting to look at our team and individual players."
"These are must win games for us. Even though we're ranked and people have us going to the tournament, if we lose these games I think we'll get a bad seed. We're trying to get all three and then see what happens in the Big East Tournament."
"I hated St. John's and I still do hate St. John's. If I played bad this whole season, but played good against them, that would make my season. All the kids growing up in New York City liked them, but I never liked them even a little bit. When they started recruiting me I acted like I liked them, but I knew I wasn't going there."
"They're a pretty hot team right now. I think they have won three or four in a row. It is just going to be another test for us to go on the road and get a `W.'"
"He's (Pitino) a legendary coach. He has gotten it done at every level and I know his teams are always going to play hard. They're going to push the ball and run their sets. They will probably try to trap and press and speed us up a little bit."
Time/TV: 7 p.m./ESPN2 (Schulman/Elmore)
Site: Freedom Hall
Favorite: Louisville by 14
Series: Louisville leads 4-3
Probable Starting Lineups:
LOUISVILLE (19-8, 9-4)
F Terrence Williams.... 11.8 pts
F Earl Clark........... 5.1 pts
C David Padgett........ 9.5 pts
G Brandon Jenkins...... 4.9 pts
G Edgar Sosa........... 10.9 pts
ST. JOHN'S (15-12, 6-8)
F Qa'rraan Calhoun..... 5.3 pts
F Lamont Hamilton...... 13.6 pts
F Anthony Mason Jr..... 11.2 pts
G Avery Patterson...... 11.1 pts
G Eugene Lawrence...... 7.7 pts