By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008
The first time Louisville played Georgetown this season, junior forward Terrence Williams felt it was a chance for the Cardinals to measure themselves against one of the best teams in the country. Louisville, at the time, was unranked and tied for third place in the Big East, two games behind the defending champion Hoyas in the loss column.
"It was kind of like you pinch yourself to see if you're awake. It was kind of like pinching ourselves to see where we're at in the country: Can we play elite basketball?" said Williams, who scored eight points in the Cardinals' 59-51 win over then-No. 6 Georgetown on Feb. 9. "We meet again, and now you've got two teams playing elite basketball, so it should be fun."
Indeed, when the two teams meet tomorrow in front of an expected sellout crowd at Verizon Center, there will be a tournament-like atmosphere. The Big East regular season championship is at stake: No. 11 Georgetown (24-4) and No. 12 Louisville (24-6), the preseason league co-favorites, are each 14-3 in conference play.
Both teams are guaranteed first-round byes when the Big East tournament begins next week; the winner gets the top seed. It is just the second time in conference history that two teams tied for first place have met in the last game of the regular season. In 1988, Pittsburgh won at Syracuse, 85-84.
"We are excited," Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said. "For us, we were hoping it would reach this point."
But there were plenty of times this season when it appeared as if the Cardinals might not. They dealt with injuries to seniors David Padgett and Juan Palacios, and a disciplinary suspension to sophomore Derrick Caracter. They lost to Dayton and Cincinnati at home, and after the latter loss -- which came in the Big East opener -- junior Andre McGee said the team realized it couldn't afford many more losses if it wanted to even make the NCAA tournament.
It was never a question of talent; at Big East media day, Pitino said that this was the most talented group he's had at Louisville. But he stressed the importance of team over individual. Prior to the season, he showed his players videos of his 1996 national champion Kentucky team.
The point he was trying to get across was this: On that Kentucky team, "Everybody sacrificed individual egos for the team. It was all about winning. It was not about touches, not about points, not about own individual games. Everybody gets their rewards in the end when the team wins."
The Cardinals took that lesson to heart, but it took some time. Padgett's return in early January from a broken right kneecap helped.
"It started with eight players believing it, then Earl Clark buying in, then Derrick Caracter. The last guy to buy in was Edgar Sosa," Pitino said. "I put Florida's statistics on the board. Nobody in the history of our game has ever had three players drafted in the top 10, and you look at their stats, and no one averaged more than 13 points per game."
Louisville has eight players who average between six and 11.7 points. The Cardinals have won nine games in a row -- the longest current winning streak of any power-conference team -- and seven players have led them in scoring in that span.
During a recent conference call, several Big East coaches were asked what in particular makes the Cardinals so impressive. Each one highlighted a different aspect, from "David Padgett's leadership and their team length" (Villanova's Jay Wright), to "their field goal percentage defense" (Notre Dame's Mike Brey), to "they're really deep and they're experienced" (Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon).
Williams, for his part, thinks that Louisville's greatest strength is its inside-out game, which is built around Padgett, one of the best passing big men in the country. Padgett had 18 points and four assists in the first meeting with the Hoyas. McGee, however, thinks that it's Louisville's defense. The Cardinals, who rank third in the country in field goal percentage defense (37.9 percent), held Georgetown to 34.8 percent shooting (8 of 23) in the second half last month.
"That's one thing that Coach told us has to be there every game and has to be consistent. It's something that we can control," McGee said. "We can't control missed shots; we can't control the ball slipping out of your hand. But your defense is one thing that can never be off. It's all about desire, the will to do it or not to do it."
The Cardinals have matured. They're no longer testing themselves.
"It's not October 12, when you're starting out. It's not November, when you're still trying to find yourself," Williams said. "This is the regular season championship game. This is the last game of the [regular] season. It's time to get for real."