LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -Rick Pitino saw all the signs of a team in trouble following a couple of early-season losses, though his Louisville Cardinals have been staggered by fall setbacks before.
So after Louisville appeared poised to drop out of the Top 25 following a 56-55 loss to UNLV on New Year's Eve, Pitino decided it was time for a history lesson.
The ninth-ranked Cardinals (13-3, 4-0 Big East) have proven during Pitino's seven-plus seasons that Muhammad Ali isn't the only one in Louisville who can master the Rope-A-Dope.
Louisville fell to 8-3 following the disheartening loss - this after starting the year ranked No. 3 - and Pitino reminded his team the season was just beginning.
``I told them, 'If you're getting down, you're being silly,''' he said. ``It's going to be a fight to the finish like it always is.''
The Cardinals have made a habit of dropping seemingly winnable nonconference games during the fall only to come to life once the calendar flips to January.
s fell to Purdue. Each time Louisville rallied to finish second in the Big East.
Pitino didn't see any reason why this season should be any different even as his players wondered how things fell so far, so fast.
``We got all these great players and all this potential, why (are) things going on,'' said forward Earl Clark. ``But we had to just stay with it, stay strong and as time goes on I think we just get better. We have better chemistry. The young guys, they're coming around the corner and that's all we needed, was time.''
Louisville has responded with five straight wins since Pitino's pep talk, including a 69-63 upset of then-No. 1 Pittsburgh on Saturday. The win surprised some, but not Pittsburgh guard Levance Fields.
``They lose a couple of early games and everybody kind of says, 'What's going on with Louisville?''' Fields said after the Cardinals forced him into a season-high six turnovers. ``And once conference play starts, they start playing well.''
The stirring second-half rally against the Panthers vaulted the Cardinals back into the top 10 heading into Wednesday night's game at Rutgers (9-9, 0-5). However, Pitino said his players have hardly noticed their bumpy ride up and down - and now back up - in the polls.
last year, not what you did this year and the fact we've moved up all these spots, we're after something a lot bigger than a ranking.''
Namely, a Big East championship and a lofty seed when the NCAA tournament begins. Pitino thinks a 13-5 conference record will be good enough to get it done, but he knows better than to look that far ahead.
``We have 14 more wars to go,'' he said with a laugh.
They're battles the Cardinals certainly look ready to fight. Louisville has bounced back behind the kind of frenetic pressure that Pitino rode to a national title and three Final Fours at Kentucky in the 1990s. Louisville is holding opponents to 38 percent shooting from the field and is forcing 16.2 turnovers per game.
The later in the game it gets, the better the defense becomes. The Cardinals held Pittsburgh to 1-for-16 shooting over the final 8:55 to erase a 10-point deficit one game after limiting Notre Dame to one field goal over the final 11 minutes in an overtime victory.
``We make mistakes like any team makes but we're playing extremely hard right now,'' Pitino said. ``We're not doing everything we want to do, but we're not too far away from that.''
``A lot of these guys want to play at the professional level, and this is part of getting prepared for that,'' Pitino said. So is trying to stay grounded. It can be difficult for college players to keep things in perspective, though maybe Pitino should be encouraged by what happened in the hours after the Cardinals beat a No. 1 team for the first time in more than five years.
Clark and some of his teammates went out to celebrate the win and Clark's 21st birthday. Clark says he didn't do anything crazy, like have the white wine spritzer Pitino jokingly suggested. Clark said there'll be plenty of time to let loose down the road.
``We know if we go out here and lose to Rutgers, everything we did this past week is going to be erased,'' Clark said. ``We're on a roll right now and we want to keep it that way.''

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