LOUISVILLE — Rick Pitino saw all the telltale signs of a Louisville team in trouble following a couple of early season losses, though his Cardinals have been staggered by fall setbacks before.
So after Louisville appeared poised to drop out of the Top 25 following a 56-55 loss to UNLV on New Year's Eve, Pitino decided it was time for a history lesson.
The ninth-ranked Cardinals, who play at Rutgers on Wednesday, have proved during Pitino's seven-plus seasons that Muhammad Ali isn't the only one in Louisville who can master the rope-a-dope.
U of L fell to 8-3 following the loss — this after starting the season ranked No. 3 — and Pitino reminded his team the season was just starting.
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"I told them, 'If you're getting down, you're being silly,' " he said. "It's going to be a fight to the finish like it always is."
Two years ago, there were losses to Dayton and Massachusetts. Last year, the Cardinals fell to Purdue. Each time Louisville rallied to finish second in the Big East.
Pitino didn't see any reason this season should be different even as his players wondered how things fell so far, so fast.
"We got all these great players and all this potential, why (are) things going on," said forward Earl Clark. "But we had to just stay with it, stay strong and, as time goes on, I think we just get better. We have better chemistry. The young guys, they're coming around the corner, and that's all we needed, was time."
Louisville has responded with five straight wins since Pitino's pep talk, including a 69-63 upset of then-No. 1 Pittsburgh on Saturday.
The stirring second-half rally against the Panthers vaulted the Cardinals back into the top 10 heading into Wednesday night's game at Rutgers. However, Pitino said his players have hardly noticed their bumpy ride in the polls.
"We don't talk about (the rankings) anymore," Pitino said. "We did at the beginning of the year a little bit, told them that that ranking was a result of what you did last year, not what you did this year, and the fact we've moved up all these spots, we're after something a lot bigger than a ranking."
Namely, a Big East championship and a lofty seed in the NCAA Tournament.