LOUISVILLE — Rick Pitino knows his team got a little too full of itself in the fall when pre-season publications tabbed the Cardinals as a near lock for the Final Four.
Three nonconference losses soon followed, taking Louisville's swagger and lofty No. 3 ranking along with them.
Though a perfect January has vaulted the Cardinals back into the top 10, Pitino's not about to let his players get ahead of themselves again.
While he's kept Louisville's post-game locker room open to the media during its current eight-game winning streak, Pitino has also issued a gag order of sorts: no talking about the NCAA Tournament, staying unbeaten along with No. 8 Marquette in the Big East or a possible showdown with No. 2 Connecticut on Monday.
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Pitino doesn't want the seventh-ranked Cardinals (16-3, 7-0 Big East) looking past West Virginia (15-5, 4-3) on Saturday.
"In a different conference, you can maybe sometimes look ahead," Pitino said. "But I think when you're in the ACC or in the Pac-10, the Big 12, you're in the Big East, I just don't think you can do it."
West Virginia has a way of making teams pay for taking it lightly. The Mountaineers already have decisive road wins at Ohio State and Georgetown and are starting to play with the kind of defensive tenacity that became Coach Bob Huggins' trademark at Cincinnati.
"I think, any time you play really good defense, any time you rebound the ball well, you have a chance to win on the road," Pitino said. "They smother the lane."
The Cardinals, by contrast, try to smother teams all 94 feet. Guards Andre McGee and Clark County graduate Preston Knowles have become Pitino's go-to defensive stoppers. He called watching them pressure the ball "basketball Utopia" earlier in the year. Judging by the way Louisville played in the second half of a 26-point win over South Florida on Wednesday, Utopia's population is growing.
Freshman centers Samardo Samuels, George Goode and Terrence Jennings, who have struggled to pick up the seemingly countless variations of Louisville's press, combined for three steals against the Bulls by anticipating where the next pass was going and stepping in front of it.
"Samardo, his learning curve is not too good in that area, but he read it like a safety would read a quarterback, and he pulled it off," Pitino said. "T.J. and George have yet to master that but the five-man should create a lot of steals."
While flustering the Mountaineers won't be easy, Huggins says his team hasn't faced the kind of all-out pressure it will see against the Cardinals.
"I think they'll use it to try and wear us down a little bit," he said.
The snow and ice storm this week closed school for four straight days. The players used the break to catch up on the competition.
The consensus? There are some good teams out there. The Cardinals consider themselves one of them. "We watch the games and say we could play with anybody in the country," Goode said.