LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)
Louisville hopes its latest extended break ends better than the last one.
The 13th-ranked Cardinals (19-4, 8-2 American Athletic Conference) return from an eight-day layoff Friday - one day later than scheduled due to a storm - at Temple (6-16, 1-9), which begins a busy stretch of four games over nine days.
Louisville also hosts Rutgers on Sunday and South Florida on Tuesday before a Feb. 22 rematch at No. 10 Cincinnati.
The Cardinals' last hiatus ended with a 69-66 loss to the first-place Bearcats on Jan. 30. But they've won their past two and hope the momentum from last week's 77-62 win at Houston carries into a full slate that could help close their two-game deficit to Cincinnati. The grind begins against an Owls team on a three-game slide yet features four players averaging at least 14 points.
Temple is the only Division I school boasting that many high scorers, a challenge that Louisville coach Rick Pitino said his team has to work hard to defend.
"This is a very dangerous offensive basketball team," Pitino said Wednesday. "I don't think there's another team that has four 14-point scorers. ... They're a very dangerous basketball team that can put a lot of points up on the board."
If that isn't daunting enough for the defending national champions, there's the troubling trend for league teams coming off long breaks. Told that AAC squads are 0-8 after layoffs of at least six days, Pitino laughed and said "that's not good," but couldn't explain the statistic other than the Cardinals trying to reverse it.
As for Louisville's failure to capitalize on its last break, the coach suggested that had more to do with Cincinnati being a strong opponent than rust - though the Cardinals' timing seemed off in trailing by as many as 17 before rallying for their second and brief final lead that disappeared down the stretch.
To make sure the Cardinals keep their edge this time around, Pitino weaved an intrasquad scrimmage into their practice schedule. Those workouts have included junior forward Wayne Blackshear, who will play against the Owls after missing last week's trip to Houston because of a concussion sustained in practice.
So while Pitino considered it unusual to have more than a week off this late in the season, it has allowed a chance for the team to get healthy in time for the stretch run.
"With Wayne having a concussion, (the layoff) wasn't the worst thing in the world," the coach said.
Louisville's smaller lineup has played well with Blackshear and his return could help the Cardinals against Temple guard Dalton Pepper, its top scorer at 17.5 points per game and the AAC's top 3-point shooter with nearly three per contest. The 6-foot-5 Blackshear gives Louisville an even matchup against the same-sized senior, who has frequently played power forward.
Thursday marks the first meeting between the schools since Temple won 65-62 in the 2002 NIT second round for its fourth win in five meetings against Louisville. Improving that record adds more incentive to a Cardinals team already facing urgency as it enters one of the most demanding and critical parts of its schedule.
"With Cincinnati losing (to SMU on Saturday), the race has tightened up," Pitino said. "The good thing about this team is that they never look by an opponent. They care of business each game out in terms of effort and preparation. That's one of our strong suits."
Temple is coming off an 88-74 loss at Houston on Sunday, its 11th defeat in 12 games. The Owls are allowing an average of 84.2 points in their last six contests, leading coach Fran Dunphy to say his team is still not consistent enough on the defensive side.
"I like some things we're doing, and I don't like some things that we're doing, we're just not good enough defensively," Dunphy said.