LOUISVILLE — Louisville Coach Rick Pitino has seen hundreds of games in Madison Square Garden during his 35 years in coaching.
There's little doubt which one makes the basketball purist in him cringe the most: Cincinnati's bruising 69-66 victory over the Cardinals in last year's Big East tournament. Pitino called it "the ugliest game" ever played at the arena.
"They shot poorly, and we gave up 28 offensive rebounds," Pitino said with a grimace.
Play the game on either program's home gym, and it would fit right in, however. That's the way it has always been between the longtime rivals.
Even as Louisville has soared and the Bearcats struggled since the two teams joined the Big East in 2005 — Louisville is 67-31 in conference play, and the Bearcats are 33-53 — the Cardinals (19-6, 8-4 Big East) hold just a 4-3 lead against Cincinnati (19-6, 6-6) heading into Wednesday's pivotal game.
The game has lost a little luster from the days when the teams were battling for control of Conference USA and the Metro Conference before that, but the intensity hasn't waned a bit.
"They play great defense; they're very physical," Pitino said. "I think the talent on each side matches up very well against each other."
Eight of Louisville's last nine games have been decided by five points or less or in overtime. Remarkably, Louisville is 5-3 in those games despite being labeled a "finesse" team by its coach. Pitino credited his team's mental toughness and the selfless leadership of senior captain Preston Knowles for keeping the Cardinals grounded and gritty.
It hasn't been quite as good a ride for the Bearcats, who have dropped three of four. Coach Mick Cronin suspended junior Yancy Gates for violating team rules earlier this month, and his playing time has significantly decreased since he returned.
Gates played 13 minutes in a 59-57 loss to St. John's on Sunday, including one minute in the second half. While he'll be available against the Cardinals, Cronin played coy when asked how much action Gates will see.
"I'm playing the guy that gives us the best chance to win," he said. "He really is struggling guarding their guys."