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Louisville/Villanova Preview

Rarely since the beginning of conference play has the Louisville basketball team played a game in which its opponent has had more on the line than they have. Such is the case this afternoon as the Cardinals travel to Philadelphia to take on a Villanova team in desperate need of holding serve on their home floor.

The Wildcats have been conistently inconsistent the entire season. In December, they picked up double digit wins on the road at Iowa and Oklahoma, but lost at Xavier and at home to Drexel. They own huge conference wins over Georgetown and Notre Dame, but the NCAA Tournament selection committee could easily use losses at home to Depaul and on the road at West Virginia to counteract those wins.

The good news for 'Nova is that the worst is behind them as far as conference play is concerned, the bad news is that at the half-way point the Wildcats are two games below .500.

Conversely, Louisville has hit its stride in conference play after a disastrous non-con season that saw them drop every contest of any importance. But unlike Villanova, the most difficult portion of U of L's Big East slate is still yet to be played.

The Cardinals are 6-2 in the league, have won four straight in the league, and 11 of 13 overall, but Louisville has beaten just one Big East team (Providence) with a winning record in the conference, and still have games at Pitt, at Marquette, and at home against Georgetown on the schedule.

"I just want to caution everybody," U of L head coach Rick Pitino said Friday. "We're much better than we were a month ago, but we're just at the halfway point now. It's a long train ride. We still have some of the same weaknesses we've had, but we're deeper and healthier and that's a big positive for us. We still have a lot of improvement to make playing against a very difficult February schedule, as it always is."

The second season, if you will, begins with a game that Pitino says he thought would be the toughest of the season all along.

"I felt that looking at the schedule, this would be our toughest game in the Big East," Pitino said. "They've had a long time to prepare, and we're coming off a road victory with less time. They've got excellent talent that we've got to be very concerned about, especially staying out of foul trouble because of what they do."

Preparation time aside, Villanova would be a beast of an opponent if the Cards had three months to prepare, and that's due in large part to the presence of senior forward Curtis Sumpter.

Louisville has had a difficult time slowing down athletic big men all season, a fact that doesn't bode well for the Cardinals considering the 6-7 Sumpter is averaging 18 points and seven boards a game, and that the Wildcats are 8-1 when he shoots better than 50% from the field.

Sumpter, who missed all of last season while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, suffered deep bone bruise in his left tibia in a win over Notre Dame three weeks ago. The injury forced him to miss the Wildcats' win over Texas, and kept him out of the starting lineup against Providence, Pittsburgh and a rematch with the Irish.

"It was very frustrating," Sumpter said. "I asked myself, `Why me?' But I guess it could have been a whole lot worse than it is. It's not as bad as the knee. When you're an athlete, it comes with the territory. You're going to have aches and pains and bruises. The great ones are the ones who play through it."

The conference player of the year candidate has fought through the pain, and with some extra rest this week, he expects to be back in the starting lineup on Saturday.

"This is the first game really where he is expected to be close to 100 percent," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. "Our medical people said it could be two to six weeks, but if he could stand the pain, he could play and that's what he's doing. He's been playing through the pain.

He's important to us. He's important in a lot of ways. For leadership, chemistry and scoring. It just feels good to have him out there. And just for all of us who love the kid, we're just happy for him."

While Sumpter is likely 'Nova's best player, senior guard Mike Nardi is its heart and soul.

Nardi is the lone returning guard from the Wildcats' 2005-2006 squad that started four of them, earned a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament, and was a loss to eventual national champion Florida away from heading to the final four. Nardi might not have the natural ability of Allen Ray, Randy Foye or Kyle Lowry, but he's been able to balance scrappiness and poise in a way that has made him the undeniable leader every time he's on the floor.

"They're looking at me," Nardi said. "If I look panicky or take a quick shot, they're going to think, 'Oh, my God, we have to start scrambling.' I try to keep the same attitude, because I know we need that confidence."

His numbers aren't bad either.

Nardi is second on the team in scoring at 14 points per game, he's also averaging a career-best 4.3 assists, and his assist-to-turnover ratio (2.0) is the best it's ever been.

"In the past, he was so high- strung and he put so much pressure on himself that if he wasn't making shots, it would just spiral," Wright said. "I've seen such a great maturity in him this year. We feed off Mike, and that's why it was so important for him to mature and not have those emotional ups and downs. He's been just great."

Nardi's new-found maturity has been especially important since his backcourt mate for much of the season has been a freshman.

Scottie Reynolds has established himself as the guy to beat in the race for Big East freshman of the year by averaging a cool 17 ppg. since the start of conference play. Reynolds also dropped 26 in a huge Jan. 20 win over Texas.

But Reynolds' youth has reared its head in several instances this season, many of them extremlely inopportune.

He scored just eight points and turned the ball over seven times in Nova's most recent game, a loss to Pitt on Jan. 29. Wright says that Reynolds' poor performance was very likely a direct result of the fact that he had played 155 out of a possible 160 minutes in the Wildcats' previous four games.

"It could have been [fatigue]," Wright said. "We tried to rotate the guards a little bit. Mike played 32 and Scottie 26; for those guys that's like getting a break."

Reynolds having a week to rest could play a huge role in this game, especially considering his opposition, Cardinal freshman point guard Edgar Sosa, spent the majority of his time on the court in Louisville's 69-53 win at Cincinnati just three days ago.

Much of Louisville's resurgence has been attributed to the health of center David Padgett, who has scored in double figure in each of the Cardinals' last three games, and is one rebound against Syracuse away from having three straight double-doubles.

"David has really stepped up to be the leader of this team," sophomore guard Will Scott said. "He's very vocal and everybody seems to listen to him."

Wright will turn to the trio of Dante Cunningham, Shane Clark and Will Sheridan to keep Padgett and the resurgent Juan Palacios in check.

Cunningham, a sophomore, has stepped his game up in recent weeks, hitting doulbe figures in four of 'Nova's last five games. Clark is averaging 8.6 points a game and is widely considered the best defender of the three. Sheridan, a senior, has had a disappointing season, averaging just six ppg. despite logging the fourth most minutes on the team.

A 3-6 conference record with games against Georgetown, Marquette and Syracuse still on the schedule could spell disaster for Jamie Wright's club. With enormous NCAA Tournament implications on the line, there is no doubt that the Cards will get Villanova's best shot, a scary thought considering how good this team has shown it can be.

"Villanova is 3-5 right now and it wouldn't surprise me to see them go 7-1 over their remaining eight games," Pitino said. "But I hope if Villanova is 7-1, the one is to us."

Time/TV: Noon/ESPN2

Site: Wachovia Center, Philadelphia

Favorite: Villanova by 5.5

All-Time Series: Tied 5-5

Starting Lineups:

LOUISVILLE (16-6, 6-2)

Terrence Williams, F.... 13.1 pts.
Juan Palacios, F........ 10.2 pts.
David Padgett, C........ 10.1 pts.
Brandon Jenkins, G...... 4.7 pts.
Edgar Sosa, G........... 11.2 pts.

VILLANOVA (14-7, 3-5)

Dante Cunningham, F..... 8.9 pts.
Will Sheridan, F........ 6.0 pts.
Curtis Sumpter, F....... 18.1 pts.
Mike Nardi, G........... 13.9 pts.
Scottie Reynolds, G..... 12.3 pts.

CC Prediction: Villanova 78, Louisville 70