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South Florida preview

In each of the past three seasons, Louisville has lost the game before the showdown with Kentucky. Making it four straight this year would mean falling to 0-1 in a league where "should win" games are going to be even fewer and more far between than they were a season ago.

The title defense for the reigning Big East regular season and tournament champs begins this evening at home against a South Florida squad off to its best start in 18 years.

Here's all you need to know about the titlt:

The Cards have been tabbed as a 13-point favorite by the folks in Sin City.

USF is 10-2 and its only losses have both come by three points. They fell to Devan Downey and South Carolina (69-66) on Nov. 20, and then were upset at home by Central Michigan (59-56) on Dec. 13.

What is probably the Bulls' signature victory to date came on Nov. 16 when they blew out Virginia, 66-49.

Louisville has won nine straight in this series.

Augustus Gilchrist leads USF in both scoring (18.8 ppg) and rebounding (7.4 rpg), but he has sat out the last four games with an ankle injury and will not play this evening. The first game Gilchrist missed was USF's loss to Central Michigan, but the Bulls have bounced back and ride a three-game winning streak into Freedom Hall.

The Bulls will also be playing tonight without sophomore point guard Justin Leemow, who is averaging 20.5 minutes per game this season. Leemow missed this entire week of practice while attending the baptism of a nephew and niece in New York. His absence leaves South Florida with just eight players, and one is walk-on Ryan Kardok. Center Alex Rivas is still recovering from a leg injury, and point guard Anthony Crater is serving a suspension that will last for at least two more games.

Head coach Stan Heath on his team's lack of depth:

"We're shorthanded. You take any really good player off a basketball team, it makes a huge difference. It leaves a void. … It's hard playing with a short deck, but it is what it is. We're trying to get back on the right track. Nobody's going to feel sorry for us.

"We want to try to weather the storm until we get all our healthy bodies back. Sometime in mid to late January we could have three really great bodies out there helping us."

Do-everything guard Dominique Jones is second on the team in scoring (18.6 ppg) and has averaged 23 ppg since Gilchrist's injury. The preseason All-Big East selection is averaging just over 15 ppg in his career against Louisville.

At times, South Florida will utilize a four-guard lineup. Heady senior Chris Howard and not-so-heady senior Mike Mercer join Jones as significant backcourt scoring threats.

USF's most dangerous non-guard is junior Jarrid Famous, who averages just over 11 ppg and has notched three double-doubles. He was called out by Heath following the Central Michigan loss and has responded with a pair of double-doubles and a 14-point, seven-rebound effort in the Bulls' most recent game, a nine-point victory over San Diego.

During their current four-game winning streak, Louisville has out-rebounded Oral Roberts by 12, Western Kentucky by 9, Louisiana-Lafayette by 18 and Radford by 13.

Pitino on the Bulls:

"They play extremely hard and they've got some guys that can flat out score. They're totally different than what we saw from Radford. Although they do have a low-post presence we have to guard them in transition and off the bounce to be successful."

South Florida is 11-57 all-time in the Big East, and is the only program in the league to never have made an appearance in the Final Four.