LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -Rick Pitino knows his team got a little too full of itself in the fall when preseason publications tabbed the Cardinals as a near lock for the Final Four.
Three nonconference losses soon followed, taking Louisville's swagger and lofty No. 3 ranking along with them.
Though a perfect January has vaulted the Cardinals back into the top 10, Pitino's not about to let his players get ahead of themselves again.
While he's kept Louisville's postgame locker room open to the media during its current eight-game winning streak, Pitino has also issued a gag order of sorts: no talking about the NCAA tournament, staying unbeaten along with No. 8 Marquette in the nation's toughest conference or a possible showdown with No. 2 Connecticut on Monday.
Pitino doesn't want the seventh-ranked Cardinals (16-3, 7-0 Big East) looking past West Virginia (15-5, 4-3) on Saturday.
``In a different conference you can maybe sometimes look ahead,'' Pitino said. ``But I think when you're in the ACC or in the Pac-10, the Big 12, you're in the Big East, I just don't think you can do it.''
West Virginia has a way of making teams pay for taking it lightly. The Mountaineers already have decisive road wins at Ohio State and Georgetown, and are starting to play with the kind of defensive tenacity that became coach Bob Huggins' trademark at Cincinnati.
``I think any time you play really good defense, any time you rebound the ball well you have a chance to win on the road,'' Pitino said. ``They smother the lane.''
The Cardinals, by contrast, try to smother teams all 94 feet. Guards Andre McGee and Preston Knowles have become Pitino's go-to defensive stoppers. He called watching them pressure the ball ``basketball Utopia'' earlier in the year. Judging by the way Louisville played in the second half of a 26-point win over South Florida on Wednesday, Utopia's population is growing.
Freshman centers Samardo Samuels, George Goode and Terrence Jennings, who have struggled to pick up the seemingly countless variations of Louisville's press, combined for three steals against the Bulls by anticipating where the next pass is going and stepping in front of it.
``Samardo, his learning curve is not too good in that area but he read it like a safety would read a quarterback and he pulled it off,'' Pitino said. ``TJ and George have yet to master that but the five-man should create a lot of steals.''
ys his team hasn't faced the kind of all-out pressure it will see against the Cardinals.
``I think they'll use it to try and wear us down a little bit,'' he said.
It's a formula Louisville has used to perfection over the last month. Rather than panic when things don't go well early, the Cardinals simply keep going knowing their depth will eventually prevail.
That confidence allowed them to make all the plays that mattered in wins over Villanova, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Syracuse. It also helped them put away a sluggish first half against South Florida that saw them nursing a one-point lead against an overmatched team. Louisville buried the Bulls with a 22-3 burst to start the second half.
``We know there's no need to worry about the first half because we have 20 more minutes to play,'' Goode said.
A snow and ice storm that blanketed the region earlier this week forced school to close for four straight days. The players used the break to catch up on some sleep and the competition, spending several nights laying around Minardi Hall taking Cliff Notes on how the rest of the country is doing.
The consensus? There are some good teams out there. The Cardinals consider themselves one of them.
``We watch the games and say we could play with anybody in the country,'' Goode said. ``We don't think like 'We should move in front of them' or anything. We're just playing. None of the games are going to be easy.''
Even if Louisville has made it look easy at times.
Pitino, however, would just as quickly call his team lucky rather than good. He's pleased with the way the Cardinals have responded to their early season turmoil, but he's not ready to call them the best team in the Big East.
``When it all shakes down, there's going to be a lot of teams bunched up,'' Pitino said. ``Who's going to survive that? I really don't know.''

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