- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - The stifling defense played by Louisville during last year’s championship run raised the bar high for current players.

The Cardinals have turned up the pressure again.

The second-seeded Cardinals enter Thursday night’s American Athletic Conference quarterfinal against the South Florida-Rutgers winner looking much like last year’s smothering squad.

Fifth-ranked Louisville (26-5) led the nation in turnover margin (+6.9 per game), ranked second in steals (10.0) and 26th in field goal defense (39.7 percent) during the regular season. The Cardinals have held nine of their past 15 foes below 40 percent from the field.

Pressure defense is a Rick Pitino trademark, but the coach is glad his Cardinals are playing it at a time when each possession matters in their quest to repeat as national champions.

“We always had the potential to be a good defensive team, but we didn’t get it from a focus standpoint,” Pitino said Tuesday of a roster that had to replace shot-blocking center Gorgui Dieng and career steals leader Peyton Siva from the title squad.

“We had two highly focused guys in Gorgui and Peyton and this was a very immature team emotionally. Sometimes, they were more concerned about whether you called a foul or didn’t call a foul. In the last two, three weeks they’ve just grown emotionally and that’s been a big key for us.”

Part of that is due to the chemistry that has developed between senior guard Russ Smith, transfer Chris Jones and freshman Terry Rozier. Though Smith hasn’t been as automatic creating turnovers with Jones as he was with Siva, Louisville’s turnover margin and steals averages are close to last season’s numbers of +5.9 and 10.8 respectively.

Two recent games show how stifling the Cardinals can be. They held Cincinnati to 28.6 percent shooting in a 58-57 victory that eventually created a first-place tie in the AAC. The Bearcats won the coin flip for the No. 1 seeding in Memphis.

There was also Saturday’s 81-48 victory over Connecticut in which Louisville scored 34 points off 22 turnovers and limited the Huskies to just 29 percent from the field. As good as that effort was, Smith said afterward that the Cardinals can do even more.

“The defense was solid,” Smith said. “There are some things we need to work on, there is room for improvement. There are things that will get better.”

Growth is definitely needed if the Cardinals hope to claim their third straight conference tournament title.

Louisville’s bracket features schools it has already beaten twice. If the Cardinals get past Rutgers or USF, a semifinal matchup looms against either No. 3 SMU or No. 6 Houston, both of which they beat on the road down the stretch despite allowing each to shoot 46 percent.

Mindful that swept opponents can find the answer the third time around in a tournament’s compacted schedule, Pitino said he has been analyzing everything to find a different way to achieve the same outcome.

That includes examining a defense that hasn’t missed a beat from last season.

“A lot of people think you can’t beat a team three times,” Pitino said. “It is true that the other team has an emotional edge, but if your team is emotionally ready and you understand that the other team lost twice and could make some changes because (they’ve been beaten) twice, if you understand that chess match, you’ll be ready and the better team will win. …

“You’ve got to anticipate the change and can’t say, ‘we’re better than them, we beat them twice.’ As long as you do those two things, you’ll be fine. If you don’t, you can get beat.”


Follow Gary B. Graves on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GaryBGraves

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