LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -Rick Pitino is only kidding when he says the Big East is so tough that he's ``getting the hell out of here after this year.''
Considering the brutal stretch the 23rd-ranked Cardinals are in the middle of, Pitino might not be blamed if he opted for early retirement.
Barely 48 hours after a 61-60 escape against 17th-ranked Villanova, the Cardinals (11-3, 2-0 Big East) host No. 13 Notre Dame (12-3, 3-1) on Monday, then follow it up with a showdown against top-ranked Pittsburgh on Saturday.
``There will never be an easy night and I'm just curious how everybody will come out of it in the end,'' Pitino said.
The Cardinals survived the first test with road wins over South Florida and the Wildcats to open Big East play. That's helped them to their best start in the conference since joining the massive 16-team juggernaut in 2005.
ontend. During a team meeting on Saturday night to mark the season's halfway point, Pitino stressed the challenge will only get tougher and it's best not to get caught up in the moment.
``You can't get too high and you can't get too low, and that was the message I gave to them,'' he said. ``We could win 2-3 in a row, don't embrace it. We could lose 2-3 in a row, don't get down about it. This is a long, long, long grueling battle to March and they understand that.''
They'll have to if they want to find a way to slow down the high-flying Fighting Irish. Louisville edged Notre Dame 90-85 last year, holding on despite a 40-point night from Big East player of the year Luke Harangody.
Harangody is back, and his seemingly unending array of post moves can be problematic for even the most experienced defender. The Cardinals will try to guard him with three freshmen: Samardo Samuels, Terrence Jennings and George Goode.
``I haven't seen too many guys stop him,'' Pitino said. ``And (Notre Dame guard Kyle) McAlarney, as soon as he gets off the bus at Freedom Hall, we're going to have to guard him at that point because he takes some shots that I don't quite fathom or believe.''
Pitino admits his team hasn't played anyone nearly as explosive as the Fighting Irish.
``Their offense is so dynamite and they've got so many veterans they don't beat themselves,'' Pitino said. ``They're more than Harangody and McAlarney.''
Pitino said he's seen signs in the last three games that the Cardinals are starting to finally deliver on the promise of the preseason, when they were ranked No. 3.
Three nonconference losses followed, but he's seen enough over the last week to think his team's inconsistent play is firmly in the rearview mirror.
``We're a team on the improve,'' he said. ``Our defense has always been there for us but our ability to learn, I think our attitude, is improving. We see a lot of good signs of maturity with this basketball team.''
Louisville needed that maturity - and a little luck - to avoid a meltdown against Villanova. The Wildcats missed a pair of free throws and two easy looks at the basket in the final 4 seconds.
Pitino admits his team benefited from good fortune and that the Cardinals never should have let it get that close. Yet Louisville survived, and for now, that's enough.
Sure, a win over Notre Dame could stamp the Cardinals as Big East contenders. Pitino, however, isn't ready to go that far.
``You need every game, no game is bigger than the next game,'' Pitino said. ``You just want to win every game, you just want to compete in a big way.''

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