LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -Rick Pitino never panicked. Not in November, when Louisville lost to Western Kentucky. Not in December, when the Cardinals fell to Minnesota and UNLV. Not in February, after a 33-point blowout loss to Notre Dame.
Pitino preached patience, knowing eventually the sum of his team would catch up to its talented if inconsistent parts.
Now, with the calendar flipped to the month that matters most, the Cardinals are where their coach thought they'd be all along.
Louisville (28-5) secured the top seed overall in the NCAA tournament Sunday, a reward from the selection committee following a grueling 10 weeks in which the Cardinals overcame an early winter swoon to win both the Big East regular season and conference championships.
M or Morehead State in the first round on Friday in Dayton, Ohio.
``It speaks volumes for what it means to win the Big East regular season and tournament championships,'' Pitino said.
d it means Louisville's early season stumbles are finally in the past.
Though Pitino - who won a national title at Kentucky in 1996 and is the only coach to lead three different programs to the Final Four - has said for weeks he wasn't concerned with where the Cardinals are put in the brackets, he couldn't help but feel a little bit of vindication after surviving arguably the nation's toughest conference.
Pitino took the Cardinals to the Final Four in 2005 after Louisville - then a member of Conference USA - was dropped to a fourth-seed despite entering the tournament with 29 wins. The Cardinals knocked off top-seeded Washington, then rallied past upstart West Virginia in the regional final before falling to Illinois in the national semifinal.
The road to the school's ninth Final Four appearance could be just as perilous, but at least this time the Cardinals will get a view from the top. It's a view Pitino tends to enjoy. Three of the four previous Pitino-coached teams to receive a No. 1 seed advanced to the Final Four.
``We've sat here in other years when we were in Conference USA, thinking we deserved a number two or three seed when it didn't come to fruition, so this is very exciting for our team,'' he said.
A team that is peaking at just the right time.
nded with a buzzer-beating victory over Kentucky five days later and haven't looked back, posting a 16-2 record in the Big East, including a victory over then-No. 1 Pittsburgh on Jan. 17 that served notice they were starting to click.
``When you win your conference championship and when you win the tournament and you win the number of games they did over the year, especially in the second half of the year ... (it) led them to the No. 1 seed,'' said NCAA tournament selection committee chairman Mike Slive.
Though hardly dominant, the Cardinals have won with Pitino's trademark full-court pressure. Louisville uses its depth to wear opponents down over 40 minutes. Sometimes, it doesn't take that long. Louisville quickly erased eight-point halftime deficits to Villanova and Syracuse in the Big East tournament behind a handful of steals and a barrage of 3-pointers.
``No matter what we do offensively, if we play great defense we have a chance to win and great defensive teams are going to get to a Final Four,'' Pitino said.
While senior forward Terrence Williams is clearly the leader, he is hardly a one-man show. Nobody is on a team that may be the most democratic in the country. No Louisville player averages more than 14 points and eight Cardinals play at least 12 minutes a game.
ards and they go. We have a deep bench and it's the way we play.''
That selflessness has enabled the Cardinals to thrive in a league dominated by stars.
``Our depth is one of our great assets, so when guys come in ready to keep pressure on the ball it really helps us out and teams do end up wearing out late in the second half,'' said senior guard Andre McGee.
Louisville will need to rely on that depth if it wants to survive a region that includes Wake Forest, Michigan State and defending national champion Kansas.
The Cardinals will take their chances, though as they look for their first national title since Pervis Ellison led an upset of Duke in the 1986 national championship.

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