LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -Rick Pitino is ready for Louisville to get back in the national conversation.
The Cardinals began the season ranked in the Top 25, but stumbles against Charlotte and Western Carolina earlier this month knocked the defending Big East champions out of the polls.
Despite four straight lopsided wins by an average of 25 points, Pitino knows Louisville (9-3) still has work to do if it wants to get its swagger back.
``Charlotte, even though we were injured, we can say all we want (but) it hurt us,'' Pitino said. ``We dropped out of sight.''
The Cardinals hope to find their way back Wednesday when they open Big East play against South Florida (10-2).
Though Pitino said his team is somewhat of a longshot to repeat last season's impressive double when the Cardinals won both the Big East regular season and tournament titles, he's also not ready to cede the title just yet.
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``We are making steps, we are improving,'' he said.
The Cardinals certainly looked like it during a dominant 79-53 win over Radford on Sunday. Louisville grabbed 23 offensive rebounds against the Highlanders despite giving up size at every frontcourt position and held Radford center Art Parakhouski to a relatively pedestrian 14 points and eight boards, numbers well below his season averages.
It was the kind of all-around effort the Cardinals will need to survive in one of the nation's most brutal conferences, though for years the Bulls have been a pushover.
Maybe not anymore. South Florida is off to its best start in 18 years and has won three straight despite losing sophomore forward/center Augustus Gilchrist to an ankle injury on Dec. 9. Gilchrist was leading the Bulls in scoring at the time of the injury, but South Florida has survived behind the steady play of Dominique Jones and Jarrid Famous.
The Bulls could also provide matchup problems because of their four-guard lineup. Louisville has experimented with moving center Samardo Samuels to forward while allowing 6-foot-10 reserve Terrence Jennings to play center.
The two are easily Louisville's most athletic frontcourt players, but getting them to play well together could take time. Pitino wasn't exactly pleased with what he saw from the combination during their short stint on the floor against Radford.
etty,'' Pitino said.
The Cardinals might not need Jennings and Samuels to play together if sophomore forward Kyle Kuric can keep it going. Kuric is averaging 9.6 points and 6.6 rebounds off the bench in his last three games.
The challenge for Kuric will be expanding his game. Pitino knows the film is out on him and he'll have to do more than crash the glass to become effective.
Still, Pitino says the effort has improved. The last four games have provided a much-needed confidence boost, and if the Cardinals are lacking for motivation, Pitino only needs to point to the Big East championship banners.
The Cardinals clinched the regular season title at West Virginia last spring. The euphoria in the locker room still brings a smile to guard Reginald Delk's face nine months later.
``We got a taste of that championship and we want it again,'' Delk said. ``We know that the defense was the way we won it last year, so that's what we want to do.''
The schedule could be a challenge. The Cardinals play rival No. 3 Kentucky on Saturday. Pitino bristled when asked if his team could be caught looking ahead.
``We don't think that way,'' Pitino said. ``The fans can do all they want with Twitter and Facebook and any other technology that you subscribe to. With us, we don't subscribe to that.''
're not interested in making it four straight.
``I didn't even know that stat,'' Delk said. ``I think the loss early from Western Carolina and Charlotte really put in our heads that we've got to go out there and compete every day and take care of home.''

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