Cards have sights on Big East crown

LOUISVILLE — Louisville guard Jerry Smith can still hear the cheers from the raucous Georgetown locker room after the Hoyas beat the Cardinals in the regular-season finale last spring, a victory that gave Georgetown the Big East title.

Smith and his teammates sat — trapped seemingly — for 20 or 30 minutes before quietly making their way to the team bus, wondering how they let their chance at winning the nation's toughest conference slip away.

"It was a tough moment," Smith said. "I don't want to feel that again."

If No. 6 Louisville can find a way to hold off surging West Virginia on Saturday night, Smith won't have to.

The Cardinals can clinch a share of the conference title with a win, or claim it outright if No. 1 Connecticut loses to No. 3 Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon. Louisville will watch the UConn-Pitt game together hours before taking on the Mountaineers, though Coach Rick Pitino isn't concerned about how the outcome of that game will affect his team's play.

Louisville would be considered a co-champion if it ties with UConn, though the Huskies would be the top seed in the Big East Tournament because they beat the Cardinals on Feb. 2.

"Whatever shakes down, we've had a great regular season, that's the way we look at it," Pitino said.

It's a season that looked on the verge of collapse two months ago when the Cardinals — ranked No. 3 in the pre-season — dropped non-conference games to Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV. Then U of L bounced back with win after win in the Big East.

Louisville beat West Virginia 69-63 on Jan. 31 by racing to a 20-point halftime lead then digging in when the Mountaineers made a late run. Though West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins will throw a variety of defenses at the Cardinals, Pitino knows it's nothing his team hasn't seen before.

"You're prepared for everything when you go in this league," Pitino said.

Louisville will have to be if it wants to win its first Big East title.

For seniors like Andre McGee, who suffered through the team's disastrous 6-10 debut in the Big East after moving over from Conference USA three years ago, a chance to share the league title isn't something to be taken lightly.

"We remember those days when we were really getting beat up in the conference," McGee said. "Now to be in the hunt last year and this year to win a championship, this is our last chance. We want to really try and do that."

Big East standings

Conf. All

W - L W - L

Connecticut 15-2 27-2

Louisville 15-2 24-5

Pittsburgh 14-3 27-3

Villanova 13-5 25-6

Marquette 12-5 23-7

Syracuse 10-7 22-8

West Virginia 10-7 21-9

Providence 10-8 18-12

Cincinnati 8-9 18-12

Notre Dame8-10 17-13

Georgetown 6-11 15-13

Seton Hall 6-11 15-14

St. John's 6-12 15-16

South Florida 4-13 9-20

Rutgers 1-16 10-20

DePaul 0-17 8-22

Friday's game

Notre Dame 74, St. John's 55

Saturday's game

Connecticut at Pittsburgh, Noon (CBS-27)

Syracuse at Marquette, 2 p.m.

South Florida at Rutgers, 2 p.m.

Seton Hall at Cincinnati, 4 p.m.

DePaul at Georgetown, 5 p.m.

Louisville at West Virginia, 9 p.m.